“You’re not alone. There’s someone who is thinking of you, who is with you.”
That is the central message of Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq in early March, his first foreign trip since the pandemic and the first ever by a pope to the country, according to the undersecretary of the Vatican’s development office.
Iraq’s Christians are hoping that the historic visit by the pontiff will help boost their community’s existential struggle to survive, Mariam Fam reports.
The country’s Christian population has been dwindling ever since the turmoil that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and occupation. And it was dealt a near-fatal blow in 2014, when Islamic State group militants overran northern Iraq, site of Iraq’s historical Christian heartland.
It was a brutal and murderous rampage — and between that and the long war to drive the extremists out, the area was pulverized. Entire towns of Christians fled IS, most taking refuge in Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous zone in the north and some fleeing abroad.
The Vatican and the pope have often insisted on the need to preserve Iraq’s ancient Christian communities and to create the secure economic and social conditions for those who have left to return.
The Vatican for years has helped coordinate Catholic NGOs providing help in Iraq and other countries, including in education, health care and reconstruction. The aid is non-denominational _ Muslims are helped as well as Christians — and the overall hope is that the area’s delicate interfaith balance can be strengthened.
The pope’s March 5-8 visit will also have a strong interfaith component.