For the Iraqi priest, the Pope’s go to awakens hope that belief shall be restored between Christians and Muslims
VATICAN CITY (RNA) – In Iraq, the birthplace of Abraham, the patriarch of three major faiths, religion has seldom so divided the country, and Christians, descendants of one of the oldest communities of their faith, feel more threatened than in living memory.
Rev. Karam Qasha, a pastor with the Chaldean Catholic Church of St. George in Telskuf, northern Iraq, hopes Pope Francis can improve the “broken trust” between Christians and Muslims in the country and reassure fearful Christians.
Francis will visit Iraq March 5-8, making good on John Paul II’s attempt to visit Iraq in 2000 when failed negotiations with Saddam Hussein’s government prevented John Paul from visiting.
Francis is expected to visit Ur, believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, and meet with political and religious representatives of the country.
“Perhaps his presence will heal the many wounds in the hearts of many believers and show that the Church has not abandoned its believers,” Qasha told reporters on Thursday (February 4) when he was visiting Rome.
According to the priest, “this visit is not just for Iraq, but for the entire Middle East.”
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The Pope will also visit the Nineveh Plains, considered the cradle of Christianity in the Middle East and still home to the majority of Iraqi Christians. It is also the backdrop to some of the most desperate persecutions that many Christians have suffered from the Islamic State Group.
“In Nineveh, the first to come to steal our houses were our neighbors, the Muslims from the surrounding villages,” said Quasha, who witnessed the raids firsthand.
Qasha said there had always been tension between Iraqi faith groups, but the situation worsened after a US-led coalition invaded Iraq in 2003 and overthrew Hussein.
“After that, many believers were killed, threatened or dismissed from their work,” said the priest. Dozens of Christian churches were destroyed by terrorist attacks and many clergy were killed. In 2008 the Chaldean Catholic Archeparch of Mosul was kidnapped and killed. Two years later, six terrorists attacked the Syrian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Aid in Baghdad, killing 48 Christians and injuring many others.
ISIS troops swept through the Nineveh Plain from 2014, conquered Mosul and forced its citizens to seek refuge in Turkey and Syria. The invaders gave Mosul’s Christians an ultimatum: convert to Islam or pay the jiziya, a tax arbitrarily decided by ISIS occupiers. In the end, said Qasha, Christians were allowed to leave the city if they left their belongings and identification papers behind.
“For them, Christians shouldn’t even have an identity in the country,” he said. “We left everything behind, but not the most important thing that has saved us from the beginning until today – our faith.”
American and Kurdish forces retook Mosul and the surrounding area in 2016, and the US has started a planned reconstruction program. The Roman Catholic Church played a vital role in funding and promoting the resurgence of Christian and Muslim communities in the region.
The number of Christians in the region has fallen from an estimated 1.4 million in 2003 to just under 300,000 today. The COVID-19 pandemic coupled with a crippled economy has made the survival of the remaining Christian community even more precarious. Qasha said the locals are well aware that ISIS has not been completely defeated and that fear is still pervading daily life. “It takes a lot of time, work, and determination to change attitudes.”
A decisive step in Christian-Muslim relations in Iraq will be the meeting between Francis and the Shiite leader Ali al-Sistani. The Pope, who signed a document on human fraternity with Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, in 2019, sees the meeting with al-Sistani as another important step in promoting dialogue with Muslims in the Middle East .
RELATED: Patriarch: Pope Meets Iraqi Shiite Leader Sistani in Iraq
“Muslims will see it as a meeting of two great people,” said the Iraqi priest. “For Christians, I believe that it will also be important to promote peace between ourselves and others where trust has been broken. But we are ready to start over. “
Whether Iraqi Christians are ready to forgive the devastation of the past two decades remains to be seen, Qasha said. “I think forgiveness is possible when the most important thing is there: the opportunity to live a worthy life,” he said.
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