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Welcome, Pope Francis, to Iraq

Chaldean Archbishop Yousif Thomas Mirkis of Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, has issued a message of welcome and appreciation to Pope Francis, one month before the pontiff’s first apostolic visit to the Middle Eastern country, 5-8 March. 

The Vatican issued the pope’s itinerary for the trip on 8 February. Upon his arrival in Baghdad, Pope Francis is to have a short visit with Iraqi President Barham Salih, and then gather with bishops, clergy, religious, seminarians and catechists at the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation. The next day, he is to meet with the Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Husaymi Al-Sistani in Najaf, travel to an interreligious meeting on the plains of Ur, and celebrate the Eucharist at the Chaldean Cathedral of St. Joseph in Baghdad. On Sunday, he is to travel to Mosul to pray for the victims of war at Hosh al-Bieaa; to Qaraqosh to meet the faithful at the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception; and to Erbil to celebrate a final Mass at an open-air stadium. 

The original English version of Archbishop Mirkis’ full message, published on 7 February, follows.

Welcome to our hearts before you set foot in the holy land of Iraq, where, has been written, half of the books of the Old Testament. These and many other texts are considered sacred by millions. Before you come to us, you engrave your captivating smile and your rare simplicity in those who are waiting for your blessings and prayers.

Welcome for your evangelical courage to enter Iraq, as Christ did when he entered Jerusalem. He did not enter it on a white horse like emperors, nor as the great ones now who enter today in armored limousines. Jesus entered on a “donkey,” like your car “Lada,” a middle-class car like that in his time. You will enter our country without fear of the spreading epidemic (COVID-19). Therefore, our people will warmly welcome you, because you have fulfilled old dreams that are at least 20 years old, since your predecessor, St. John Paul II. He wanted to make the pilgrimage to the house of Abraham, the father of the believers, in the province of Nasiriya (Old Ur) by the beginning of the second millennium.

Welcome, Francis, this name that you deliberately chose, and you are the first to bear this name among the popes. St. Francis, the poor of Assisi, a lover of abnegation, who tried to remind us, eight centuries ago, that real wealth is neither money nor social exclusion. While his father, “Bernardone,” a rich, fabric merchant, was baffled by his young son, Francis, and pursued him to the bishop’s house, who embraced him after Francis took off his clothes and gave them to his father. The bishop wrapped him in his coat, in the suit of the mother church!

Welcome, pope, in your choice for the poor, denouncing corruption inside and outside the church, and denouncing the “globalization of indifference” towards the waves of immigration that were provoked by the poverty that European and American colonialism planted in all continents: in Africa, Asia, in our country and our devastated region in particular.

Welcome, you who have put some good taste in our wide life of faith, regardless of our religions, denominations and rituals. You reminded us that “we are all brothers” because God is the Father of all, and that “the earth is our common home” because it is a gift from our creator. You remind all those who are “committed to social justice,” that those who “work for a more just and solidarity world” do not get tired.

Welcome, Francis, to our region, to encourage those who struggle against the “culture of speed and urgency.”  We, like you, believe that “the measure of the greatness of society appears through the way in which the people who are most in need, and who have nothing but their poverty, are treated”!

Welcome to the painful church of Iraq, which lost two-thirds of its people by emigration, as they set out on the roads of the world. You came to call us to “adopt justice and defend the poor against forms of social and economic discrimination and inequalities. These have become intolerable and made the screams of our youth reach the sky. Interference in politics, “so that church lives in the shadow of the rich and powerful, and no longer silences the voice of her prophets, but rather preaches the pain of the living Christ today as well.

Welcome to you who sought to reform the church and who began the change that you made to your papal “mission.” You got rid of palaces, gold and red shoes. You once said, “The carnival is over” for those who wanted to dress you like princes. You no longer want the royal titles “Your Holiness,” “Supreme Pontiff,” “Holy Father,” but quite simply: “Pope,” “Bishop of Rome,” and “Servant of the Servants of God.”

Welcome, Francis, to the church that needs forms of vocations to serve the altar by married and unmarried priests, monks and nuns, and why not by women deacons who have a call to service and sacraments?

Welcome to a suffering people. You have appreciated the meaning of pain since the first day of your ordination in 2013, because pain occurs frequently because of silence and not talking or discussing side issues, and many are lost because of it. We do not need “fatwas,” but rather the mercy of the Lord, and this you said to reporters in 2013 on the plane upon your return from Brazil: “Who am I to judge them?” You want mature, believing people who understand and decide what belongs to them as a family and as individuals out of respect for the other and respect for their body and soul.

Welcome to your strenuous steps to reform the ecclesiastical institution and your initiative to relieve it of its burdens, inviting her to take root in all continents, in order to offer advice to all, “so that life may be more abundant for them” (Jn 10:10). It would be nice if the local churches were given more leeway to make decisions that concern them. The synod (like the bishops’ councils) is the one that can be assessed in a collective spirit, as called for by the Second Vatican Council.

Welcome, Francis, to this part of the “globalized” world. We are colonized by this globalization, and desperately in need of your words that remind us of another globalization that Jesus Christ brought concerning the fatherhood of Divine Mercy, applied by St. Francis of Assisi. A globalization of: tolerance, love for the poor, mercy, joy, service, justice based on respect for religious differences, strengthening the relationship between religions, and an outright denunciation of the forms of national, sectarian and religious closed-mindedness that caused our misery in these societies and wronged everyone.

May God bless you, Francis, and may your honorable St. Francis of Assisi give you more courage! Moreover, these are my prayers for you, just as you asked me on my last visit to the Vatican with the Chaldean bishops (on 6 October 2017). You said to me when I greeted you: “I need your prayers!” I teared up, and I remembered what the American Wall Street Journal wrote about you: “Finally, we got a pope” (issue 25 December 2014).

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