ACN International draws a positive outcome from Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq. “The trip has already changed how the majority of Iraqis view Christians. They have understood that Christians are not just guests from the West, but they have their roots there and are truly a part of the country and the region. Cardinal Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, has assured me of this,” Regina Lynch, Director of Projects at ACN, told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) upon her return from the trip. She had travelled on board the papal plane as the representative of the Assembly of Organisations for Aid to the Eastern Churches (ROACO). “We hope that it will be possible to maintain this understanding.”
Lynch would like to see further steps taken to improve the situation of the Christians in Iraq as a result of the papal visit. “The interfaith encounters were particularly significant. Of utmost importance was the meeting with the spiritual leader of the Shia Muslims in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. After all, he holds influence over large numbers of Shia Muslims in the country. These were very positive steps.”
According to Lynch, the emotional highlight of the trip was the Pope’s visit on Sunday to Baghdeda (Qaraqosh), a city with a majority Christian population. “The joy of the people was overwhelming. Thousands lined the streets to see the Pope as he drove past. The religious sisters were literally dancing on the rooftops. These were people who had come back after being forced to leave their homes because of ISIS. What Pope Francis saw here were truly the living stones of the Church in Iraq.” She then talked about how deeply moved she had been by the testimony presented to the Pope by a Christian woman whose son had been killed by IS. “She has forgiven the perpetrators. She believes that this is what her faith called her to do. That was a very powerful moment.” Lynch explained that in several speeches given by Pope Francis he clearly emphasised that this was the true calling of the Christians in Iraq. “They are to be instruments of peace and reconciliation. In their country, that is the witness that they offer all of society. And in this, it is not about how big the numbers of Christians are. A mustard seed is enough,” Lynch said.
Visit to the Church of “Immaculate Conception” in Qaraqosh. Photographer: F. Essa. Copyright: Aid to the Church in Need.
According to the ACN representative, the important thing now is to take advantage of the attention that the country has received through the Pope’s visit. “Worldwide, the interest in the visit has been huge. There was large media coverage. I hope that this will motivate the international community to help Iraq more. Because the challenges that need to be faced remain enormous.” Lynch explained that there is a fear among many Christians that IS will return. “The Iraqi government finally has to take steps to ensure effective safety. They have to replace the militias with a powerful police force. Furthermore, the Christians who are returning to their hometowns after fleeing IS need perspectives for their livelihood.”
Meanwhile, Lynch expressed hope that the worst period of Christian migration from Iraq may be over. “I spoke with the Syriac Catholic archbishop of Erbil, Nizar Semaan. He has high hopes that the members of his community will remain, at least in the area of the autonomous Kurdistan Region. In any case, the Pope’s visit has encouraged Christians to do so.”
In the meantime, ACN will continue to support the hard-pressed Christians of Iraq. “At the moment, the main focus of our work is rebuilding the churches and church institutions that were destroyed by IS. For this reason, it was a moment of great joy for us, and particularly for our benefactors, when, in his greeting to the Pope, the head of the Syriac Catholic Church, Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan, expressly thanked ACN for its support in the reconstruction,” Lynch said.
“At the same time, we have initiated a new and very ambitious programme at the Catholic University of Erbil to help students receive a good education. But particularly important is to strengthen people's faith. Therefore, another focus of our aid is the Church’s pastoral work with young people and families. We have now seen just how young this Church is.”
Lynch talked about how she left Iraq richly rewarded and encouraged. “I was deeply moved by the faith of the people there. One woman said, ‘When ISIS came, we were ready to die for our faith.’ What would I do in such a situation? Would I say yes? The faith of the Christians in Iraq has a dual message for us Christians in the West: Let us be proud of our faith and not hide it.”
Featured Image: Pope Francis in the Sayidat al-Nejat Cathedral in Baghdad. Copyright: Aid to the Church in Need.