Pope Francis, US express concern about dwindling Christian population in Middle East

“Let there be peace!,” the Pope affirmed. “This is the cry of all those who are Abel today, a cry that rises to God’s throne.”

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan24) – On Saturday, Pope Francis issued a passionate call for peace in the Middle East at a day-long reflection and prayer meeting in the southern Italian port city of Bari, on the Adriatic sea, attended by leaders from 19 Christian churches and communities in the Middle East.

“Let there be peace!,” the Pope affirmed. “This is the cry of all those who are Abel today, a cry that rises to God’s throne,” he said, alluding to the Biblical story of Cain’s murder of his brother, Abel, and then his attempt to deny the crime, with the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

“Yes” is the Pope’s answer, as he criticized the “murderous indifference” and “complicit silence” of many, while denouncing the “violence and destruction” that is causing Christians to flee their ancient homelands and the birthplace of Christianity itself.

The Trump administration shares the Pontiff’s concern and has recently taken action regarding the plight of Christians in Iraq.

“At the direction of Vice President Mike Pence, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Mark Green and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback led a US delegation to Iraq” from June 30 to July 3, the State Department said.

The delegation visited “persecuted ethnic and religious communities who were widely displaced and suffered unspeakable atrocities under the genocidal rule” of the Islamic State (IS)—“particularly Christians and Yezidis (Ezidis) who were driven to near extinction and are still struggling to survive,” the Department’s statement explained.

Senior members of Pence’s office, as well as Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R, Nebraska) and retired Rep. Frank Wolf, were members of the delegation.

The US group “traveled to Erbil to meet with local archbishops at the residence of Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of the Chaldean Catholic Church” in order to explore how the US could better support Iraq’s Christians as they recover from IS’ murderous rampage, the statement continued.

The US delegation “also met with Yezidi leaders, including Khurto Hajji Ismail,” the Yezidi’s spiritual leader, as well as “Yezidi survivors of [IS] captivity.”

“Recognizing that Iraqi leaders must also be part of the solution,” it continued, “the delegation met with government leaders from Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and KRG Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani.”

According to the State Department’s own account, all the meetings that the delegation had with Christian and Yezidi leaders, and members of those communities, were in the north of the country—the Kurdistan Region and the Nineveh plains.

Christians who had previously lived in cities to the south, such as Baghdad and Basra, including Archbishop Warda, found their positions in recent years increasingly untenable and relocated to the Kurdistan Region.

After meeting with the delegation, Warda, explained that he was “delighted” to hear that US assistance would be sent directly to the endangered communities, but he also warned that time was short.

“The time should be now and the help should be immediate and effective,” Warda advised the delegation, as he later told the Catholic News Service (CNS.)

But Warda also described the visit as “important,” noting that the delegation had brought a crucial message: “We do care.”

“The American government and the Americans do care about the fate of the Christians, Yezidis, and the minorities and want to help,” Warda explained to CNS.

In his own meeting with the US delegation, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani informed the Americans of the KRG’s “readiness to provide all assistance to various communities,” even as he stressed the need for international support to address their plight.

Barzani also noted, “These communities have deep historical roots in Iraq and the region,” and a “confidence-building process should be launched” to encourage them to remain in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, rather than emigrate to other areas.

In 2003, when Saddam Hussein was overthrown, some 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq. Estimates now of Iraq’s Christian population are much lower, ranging from 200,000 to 500,000.

Ediing by Nadia Riva