VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Benedict XVI said that during his weeklong Lenten retreat he frequently prayed for all the victims of violence in Iraq, especially members of the country’s Christian minority.
“I learned with deep sadness of the recent killings of Christians in Mosul and I followed with deep concern the other episodes of violence perpetrated in the martyred Iraqi land, harming defenseless people of different religions,” the pope said Feb. 28, the day after his retreat ended.
Speaking after reciting the Angelus with visitors gathered in St. Peter’s Square, including a group of Iraqi refugees, the pope told Iraqi Christians, “Do not tire of being a leaven of good for the country to which you have fully belonged for centuries.”
As Iraq prepared for legislative elections March 7 and continued attempting to consolidate peace and democracy, the pope called on civil authorities “to make every effort to give security to the population and, particularly, to the most vulnerable religious minorities.”
The pope also asked the international community to help Iraq build “a future of reconciliation and justice.”
As the pope spoke, Catholic and Orthodox Christians in Mosul and the surrounding province marched for peace and government protection in northern Iraq.
Syrian Catholic Archbishop Georges Casmoussa of Mosul told Fides, the Vatican’s missionary news agency, “Bishops, priests, religious and laypeople will be marching in a peaceful and silent march against the daily massacre suffered by the Christian community,” a situation “met with indifference from the authorities.”
“The march has no political or electoral motives, only religious ones,” the archbishop told Fides Feb. 27.
“In every election there are some troubles,” Archbishop Casmoussa had told Vatican Radio Feb. 24, “but not to the point of killing people, particularly Christians. The Christians were killed not because of their politics, but because they are Christians.”
Vatican Radio and the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, had reported Feb. 24 that although the pope was on retreat and not speaking publicly, he expressed his sorrow that “in the area of Mosul, the killing of Christians continues.”
Earlier that day, funerals were celebrated for the murdered father and two brothers of a Syrian Catholic priest, Father Mazen Ishoa, who himself had been kidnapped and released in 2007.
Murdered in their home Feb. 23, the three men brought to seven the number of Christians murdered in Mosul in a 10-day period.
Publishing the pope’s reaction to the murders, the Vatican newspaper also published for the first time a letter sent in January to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state.
The cardinal told the prime minister that the pope had asked him to write and express his “sincere solidarity” with al-Maliki and other leaders after a series of attacks on government buildings and on places of worship, both Muslim and Christian.
“He prays with fervor for an end to the violence and asks the government to do everything possible to increase security around all places of worship throughout the country,” Cardinal Bertone wrote.
The Vatican nuncio to Iraq, Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, told Vatican Radio Feb. 25 that Christians have been in Iraq for 2,000 years, so “any attempt to decrease the Christian presence or, worse, to destroy the Christian presence in Iraq would mean destroying the history of the Iraqi nation.”
The archbishop said all the Christian churches and Christian leaders in the country are involved in interreligious dialogue and are in constant contact with Muslim leaders.
“I have just received a delegation of Sunni and Shiite leaders who came to the nunciature to express their solidarity in these difficult times for Christians, especially in Mosul,” he said.
Archbishop Chullikatt said international solidarity is crucial for the survival of Iraq’s minorities, “especially the Christians who are most exposed to the kind of violence taking place now, particularly in Mosul.”