Over the next few days, Pope Francis will be visiting various locations in Iraq. It’s the first time the Iraq (which is number 11 on the World Watch List) has ever been visited by a Pope.
A few years ago, Al Tahira church was being used as a shooting range by so-called Islamic State (IS). During their occupation of the city, IS practically destroyed this Syriac Catholic church, and the Christians who returned to the area found their beloved church in ruins, completely blackened from the inside.
But it looks very different now. Flowers are being planted, new stained-glass windows are being placed and even the road in front of the church is being restored. It’s getting ready to receive the Pope.
Father Ammar is overseeing the work in the church. As one of the priests of this congregation, he is closely involved with the Pope’s visit: “This church was severely damaged by IS. The renovation of the church was already ongoing when we heard that the Pope was coming to visit us. Then we sped up the renovation, so we will be ready to accept the Pope in a finished church.”
The visit of Pope Francis is the first ever papal visit to Iraq, where about half the Christians belong to the Catholic denomination. There are only around 175,000 believers in Iraq – less than half a per cent of the population of 41.5 million. IS no longer have a stranglehold over the country, but the legacy of their appalling actions, and the trauma caused, casts a long shadow.
“I am so happy that that the Pope will visit us; we have been waiting for it for so long,” says Father Ammar. “This is a real encouragement for our faith."
The Pope isn’t only coming to Iraq to encourage the Christians: he is also hoping to encourage interreligious dialogue and peace. This is a crucial topic in the country that is ranked 11th on the Open Doors list of countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, with Islamic oppression being the main threat Christians face. Apart from meeting religious leaders, the Pope will also visit Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, a forefather that Christians, Muslims and Jews all have in common.
In Al Tahira church we also find Rita Amer, one of the choir members that will sing for the Pope next weekend. “I hope this would be a visit of love and peace for everyone in Iraq, she says. “Not only for Christians, but all Iraqis in general. I hope this would change things for the better: this is a joyful step for Iraq.”
“We hope that the visit of pope leaves a great impact on the authorities in Iraq,” says Father Thabet, another local priest. “I hope it will encourage the democratic process so that the government of Iraq will look into the persecution the Christian community is dealing with. Right now, the rights of Christians and other minorities are violated.”
“I hope it will encourage the government of Iraq to look into the persecution the Christian community" Father Thabet
The priest also hopes that the authorities will again be reminded of the need for reconstruction in the Christian areas. Even though many houses have been restored with the donations of Christians around the world, including many Open Doors supporters, there remains work to be done. “We have brought our needs to their attention before,” Father Thabet says, “and I hope the Pope visit will serve as a reminder of our requests.”
Soon, the eyes of the world will be focused on this Christian community in the Middle East. "The world is going to know that there is a Christian presence in Iraq," says Father Duraid, another local priest. "We say to the world that we are here in our land and that, with Jesus’ help, we are going to stay!”
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