Easter came early to Iraq this year.
Over three days in March, a country for decades synonymous with sectarian strife and war bore a message of hope to the world.
“Many Christians tell us, ‘We felt the celebration of Easter when the Holy Father was here,’ ” said Sister Caroline Saeed Jarjis, a member of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Erbil, referring to Pope Francis’ apostolic visit.
“He offered a vision for another Iraq,” she said.
During the historic papal trip to the country from 5 to 8 March — the first visit of a pope to Mesopotamia, ever — Pope Francis mourned with Iraqi Christians in their sorrow and encouraged them in their new life in Christ, pointing all Iraqis toward a future of hope with his message of peace and fraternity.
The pope’s whirlwind schedule had him traveling to four governorates, five cities and five prayer sites within 72 hours and included visits with political and religious leaders, Christian and non-Christian.
Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Yousif Thomas Mirkis, O.P., of Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah said Iraq has been transformed profoundly by the pope’s visit, leaving an indelible mark on the nation.
“We don’t look to the catastrophe of Iraq, to the wounds of Iraq like before, because the pope came and he put his hand, like the good Samaritan, on this wound, on this wounded man, Iraq,” he said from his chancery in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.
“Now, the wounds of this man will become a sign, will become something beautiful, because the Christ, the Samaritan pope, touched him,” he said. “Now, Iraq is not the same as before. This is a new Iraq.”
“I cannot speak in the name of everybody,” he continued, “but the seed of hope is stronger than before.”
The Rev. Ammar Yako echoed the sense of hope and healing the pope brought to Iraq. As rector of the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, located in the city of Qaraqosh on the Nineveh Plain and razed and burned by ISIS in 2014, Father Yako led the church’s reconstruction that was completed just days before the pope’s 7 March visit.
The pope’s prayers were the first in the rebuilt church — now famous for its iconic Marian statue atop the bell tower.
Praying with the pope dispelled “the pain we had during the time of ISIS,” said Father Yako. “We left it with the Holy Father.”
“Before coming to Iraq, the pope said he wanted to be close to the Christians who are suffering,” said the priest. “But when we realized he was really here with us, that he was here for us, praying with us, we could feel the entire church in the Lord with us.
“This is the real meaning of the visit of the Holy Father: Christians feel they are not alone,” he added. “We Christians can continue to live our faith in this land because we know the church and the world give us the heart to go on.”
Christians were prepared to experience the joy, hope and healing the pope’s visit could offer, in part, because of their spiritual preparation beforehand, said Sister Luma Khudher, a biblical scholar and member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena.
In her hometown of Qaraqosh, fellow Dominican sisters worked with clergy and a committee of lay volunteers to organize a five-day mission, held the week before the pope’s arrival. The program included prayer vigils, processions, a concert of sacred music and short talks about the meaning of the pope’s visit, as well as age-specific activities for children, youth, adults and the elderly. Similar programs were held in the towns of Bachiqa and Karamlech.
“It was very beautiful, because it was a time for people to pray, to prepare spiritually to welcome this figure, who was like Jesus, visiting his people,” she said from Erbil, where she teaches at the Catholic University of Erbil and at Babel College for Philosophy and Theology.
And, during the visit, she said, “there was a lot of joy — joy in the air! Everyone was so happy. It was so good to see in the eyes of the people.”
Sister Luma said what most people worldwide likely know about Iraqi Christians is how their communities were destroyed by ISIS.
“But the pope’s visit to Iraq showed that what was destroyed in the Nineveh Plain was rebuilt,” she said. “And it was rebuilt because Christians around the world wanted it rebuilt.”
Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan of the Syriac Catholic Church of Antioch said the rebuilding on the Nineveh Plain also included the collaboration of Muslims in a practical approach to interreligious relations.
He said the reconstruction of the Syriac Catholic parish of Al Bichara (Annunciation), pastored by the Rev. Emmanuel Kallo, involved Christians and Muslims. Al Bichara is the only church — Catholic or Orthodox — open in Mosul since the city was liberated from ISIS in 2016, he said.
The patriarch said improving interreligious relations through relationship-building in a community context is not only a pastoral priority in the follow-up to the pope’s apostolic visit, but necessary to rebuild Iraq.
“I don’t believe in dialogue among religions. Religions cannot dialogue,” said the patriarch, explaining his approach. “There are people who dialogue and it’s mostly a life dialogue. This means we have to speak about our common togetherness in one country.”
Sister Caroline is engaged in interreligious dialogue as a member of a Committee for Tolerance and Peace Among Religions in Erbil. The committee met daily for two weeks after the pope’s visit, and continues to meet regularly, to lay out a plan to improve relations among people of different faiths in Kurdistan.
However, she was skeptical of the process at first because her congregation’s generalate in Mosul had been seized and destroyed by ISIS in 2014.
“It’s normal to have negative emotions after we lost our motherhouse in Mosul,” Sister Caroline said, referring to the first committee meeting she attended and her exchange with an imam.
“But when he began speaking with me, I felt like I was speaking with a brother,” she said. “He respects me and my words, and I respect his words. It was something new for me. It opened a new door for me, a new dialogue, a new fraternity.
“We had interreligious dialogue before 2014, but it was just words,” she continued. “This time, it’s different, and we’re returning to it with greater ease, as brothers.”
Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, who leads the Chaldean Catholic Church as patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, said he believes the pope “changed the mentality and the culture of the people” in saying all Iraqis are brothers during his meeting with interreligious leaders in Ur on 6 March.
“The pope’s trip was a big blessing for all Iraqis, but for Christians, he confirmed us in our faith, and he renewed our trust in the future and in our fellow citizens,” said the cardinal. “He asked all Iraqis to do that — to build peace, stability, respect and harmonious coexistence.”
“What we [Christians] lived years ago, that was wrong,” he continued. “But we have really to turn the page, turn to a new page, and peace and stability will come.”
Fadi Saqat, a parishioner at the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh, said turning the page and answering the pope’s call to be peacemakers in Iraq is doable.
“I think for Christians, it is very easy to forget and forgive, and the more Iraq is safe and stable, the easier it is to forgive,” he said.
Mr. Saqat, 27, who returned to Qaraqosh with his family in 2017 to rebuild their burnt-out home, said he believes the pope’s visit may have encouraged some Iraqis to remain in their homeland, although he never had any intention to leave and neither did his friends.
“If I leave, I will encourage others to leave,” he said. “I know the situation is not so safe, but it’s okay for me. I have goals to change it and I think I can do it here.”
In view of building on the momentum of the pope’s visit, Cardinal Sako has called for greater freedom of conscience and a spirit of coexistence in Iraq. He proposed public school textbooks be edited to eliminate references to Christians as infidels. He also spoke against sectarian politics and called for the formation of a secular state that would respect religious freedom — the idea, he said, has been gaining ground.
Several years ago, the cardinal began an interreligious committee in Baghdad that has developed educational materials on Iraq’s various religions, most recently a reference book for use in schools and libraries. However, he also has plans to found a center for interreligious dialogue that will offer conferences and workshops to the public.
Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, C.Ss.R., of the Chaldean Catholic Archeparchy of Erbil, expressed appreciation for Pope Francis’ “powerful model for interreligious dialogue,” which forgoes the “safe environment” of conferences, workshops and sit-down discussions in Rome and benefits from “his willingness to leave the Vatican and go to the other and meet them where they are.”
Discussions are “good, but not as courageous as leaving the Vatican” and going to Cairo, Abu Dhabi or Najaf, Iraq, said the archbishop.
“It’s a very good model for dialogue, for encounter, where I leave my safe space that I know and control very well and go to the other’s space just to be together,” he continued. “This model is Christ’s model. He left heaven to come to us, offering us God’s mercy, walking with us.”
This “being together” shows “the world that religion is not a problem,” he said.
The pope’s visit with the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite Muslims, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, in Najaf on 6 March exemplified this model. The visit was also a gesture of the pope’s “great respect” for the ayatollah as a religious authority and for Iraq’s Muslim Shiite majority, said Cardinal Sako.
The cardinal said the conversation between the two leaders during their 50-minute private visit was “very spontaneous, from heart to heart.”
The ayatollah’s office issued a statement, saying he “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights.”
Cardinal Sako, who was present for the meeting, said the two men also spoke of the importance of working for peace, stability and human dignity and deepening interreligious dialogue; each recognized the other’s role in service to humanity. Prior to the pope’s departure, Sistani also noted the fraternal spirit between the two leaders, he said.
During his three-day visit, Pope Francis issued several messages as well, calling for an end to terrorism and fundamentalism and for a commitment to peace, fraternity, coexistence and religious freedom.
However, both Cardinal Sako and Archbishop Warda agreed the most significant words the pope spoke to Iraqi Christians were at the closing Mass at the Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil on 7 March: “The church in Iraq is alive.”
“It’s a call to responsibility at the same time,” said Archbishop Warda. “We have to keep the faith flame shining.”
The Latin-rite Mass, celebrated by Pope Francis in Italian, with Syriac and Chaldean hymns, was attended by 10,000 faithful and was profoundly prayerful, he said.
However, the “most important part of it was the preparation,” which helped to build up the local Catholic community, said the archbishop.
The faithful and clergy of his small archeparchy and of the equally small Syriac Catholic Archeparchy of Adiabene, led by Archbishop Nathanael Nizar Wadih Semaan, worked together to organize the Mass. About 300 students from the Catholic university also helped.
“It’s just inconceivable to organize a papal Mass with this small group of people in the West — in the middle of COVID and rocket attacks — and they just did it,” said American layman Steve Rasche, who was among the organizers.
Mr. Rasche, vice chancellor of the Catholic University of Erbil, said the pope’s consistently encouraging and meaningful messages throughout his visit snowballed into a surge of energy and appreciation among Iraqi Catholics, evident at the closing Mass.
“They were proud of their pope,” he said. “It all just kind of built, so that by the time he arrived at the Mass in Erbil, the people were loving him. … I mean, the people went crazy.”
And, despite the fatigue from a grueling trip, the pope was “very gracious” and continued to extend himself, going “out of his way, behind the scenes, to take time with the young priests who had worked on the Mass,” as well as the other volunteers, he said.
Archbishop Mirkis expressed his relief and gratitude, shared by many others, that the apostolic visit went smoothly and without any violence. However, he said, Pope Francis dropped a few “bombs” of his own.
“He changed how we look at ourselves,” said Archbishop Mirkis.
In saying in Ur that Christians, Muslims and Jews are brothers who share the same father, Abraham, the archbishop said the pope “wiped out” Iraqis’ “obsession with identity” based on religious affiliation and replaced it with a sense of “belonging.”
“He unified Iraq by his way of speaking to us,” he said.
“This is the bomb of the visit,” he continued. “Now, no one can say, ‘We, Christians,’ ‘We, Jews,’ ‘We, Muslims…’ No. We have the truth. The truth is God only, who was loved by Abraham our father.
“Abraham is not our identity. God is our identity. We belong to God.”
Laura Ieraci is the assistant editor of ONE. Previously, she worked for the Archdiocese of Montreal, Vatican Radio, the Eparchy of Parma, and the Rome bureau of Catholic News Service.
The CNEWA Connection
For many years, Iraq has been in the eye of a storm in the Middle East, battered by war, persecution, hardship and violence. The assault of ISIS in 2014 made matters more severe and deadly. Pope Francis visited Iraq to assure the small but determined flock of Christians that they are valued and not forgotten.
CNEWA has stood with Iraqi Christians through all of this, rushing emergency relief during the siege by ISIS and working closely with religious congregations — most notably, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena — to support health care, education and the formation of novices.
Today, we work with Iraqis as they heroically rebuild their country.
You can be a part of this great work by calling 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada).