Pope would be ‘100 percent’ safe if he visited Iraq

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0805Iraq_Patriarch-Louis-Raphael-I-Sako-of-BaghdadBy Oliver Maksan and John Pontifex
• Patriarch stresses importance of trip and guarantees the Pope’s security
• He reiterates calls for ground troops to ‘liberate’ ISIS-held Christian towns
POPE Francis would be “100 percent” safe if he visited Iraq, according to the Patriarch of Baghdad, who has stressed the importance of such a trip to the country’s dwindling Christian community.
In an interview apparently accusing Papal advisors of being overcautious, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako described any such visit as having “high pastoral and spiritual symbolism”.
Outlining an itinerary for a possible one-day Papal visit to Iraq, the Patriarch told Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need that he had issued an invitation to the Pope personally.
Describing how he had made the invitation during a recent visit to Rome, Patriarch Sako said: “I don’t know why the Holy See is so concerned. I can give an assurance that nothing would happen to the Pope. His security would be guaranteed 100 percent.”
The Patriarch’s proposal for a one-day Papal visit begins with him arriving in the capital, Baghdad, meeting the government and celebrating Mass in the afternoon before returning home.
In the ACN interview, the Patriarch went on to reiterate calls for the use of ground troops to force Islamic State (ISIS) out of Mosul and the nearby Nineveh plains which until the summer were home to ancient communities of Christians, Yizidis and other minority religious groups.
Describing the West’s policy towards Iraq as “not clear”, he said: “We don’t know when the villages of the Nineveh plains will be liberated. I think it will take some time. The coalition forces haven’t decided yet.
“OK, they are conducting air strikes. But we need ground troops to push ISIS back.”
According to the Patriarch, the struggle against ISIS is compounded by the fear the Islamists have generated among moderate Muslims, who he said were afraid of condemning the radicals.
He said: “Even the imams remain silent. They can be beheaded.
“In my opinion, there is a kind of sympathy, especially because the people believe that ISIS can stop Shiism.
“But there is also a lot of suffering under ISIS because people are not accustomed to the radical interpretation of Islam [that] ISIS propagates.”
While stating that many of the 120,000 Christians displaced from Mosul and Nineveh were confident of returning, he said the lack of progress against ISIS had caused others to lose hope and reported that up to 10 Christian families were emigrating Iraq every day.
The Patriarch said the threat of ISIS continued to prompt the emigration of Christians whose population has slumped from 1.2 million before 2003 to less than 350,000 today.
He said: “If there were some kind of international protection in [Mosul and Nineveh], the people would return [but] they are anxious.
“Many believe the West is paradise but when they get there they are shocked.
“Everything is different there: the language, the culture and the society.”
He said that it is not only Christian refugees who were leaving Iraq but other Christians who have “good positions and houses” – people worried for their future and their children.
Describing Christians leaving from Baghdad, Basra as well as Erbil, he said: “This is hitting us very hard because it’s the well educated Christians who are leaving.”
Patriarch Sako’s interview with ACN comes after he thanked HRH The Prince of Wales for supporting the charity’s work.
The Patriarch’s message came in a letter read out to the Prince during a Royal visit to Holy Family Church, West Acton, London, where he met Chaldean Christians.
The visit two weeks ago came as a team of ACN delegates led by the charity’s Executive President Baron Johannes Heereman went to Erbil and attended the inauguration of a new school funded by the charity.
The initiative, consisting of portakabin structures, is the first of eight schools being funded by the charity both in Ankawa, a Christian suburb of Erbil, and Dohuk in northern Kurdistan.
Also, 15,000 displaced Iraqi children will each receive a parcel of Christmas gifts from ACN – warm clothes, colouring books and pencils, a toy, an ACN Child’s Bible and a devotional item.
Many of the 120,000 displaced Christians in Kurdistan are also receiving food and water from ACN courtesy of a coupon system organised by volunteers overseen by Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil.
This ACN support is benefiting Christians irrespective of denomination.
The charity’s help is also going to Yizidis and other non-Christian displaced people.