Erbil's beleaguered Christian community sees hope in pope's visit
ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Christians in the Ankawa suburb of Erbil are hopeful for the message Pope Francis’ visit brings to the Christian community in the Kurdistan Region, where he will celebrate a Mass on Sunday.
Francis arrived in Baghdad on Friday and was received by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. He is expected to arrive in Erbil on Sunday morning and will also visit Mosul.
“Indeed we are hopeful and optimistic for the upcoming visit by the pope, especially after the suffering that the Christians in Iraq and the region have experienced. The visit will convey a message of peace for the region,” Oniel Fahmi told Kurdistan 24 after services in St. Joseph Cathedral in the week before the pope’s trip.
“There are a small number of Christians left in the region, and the people have put their hopes in this visit. We hope that the remaining Christians will continue to live on their lands, and that those who have left could return in peace.”
Since 2003, the number of Christians has been in decline in Iraq. The situation worsened after Islamic State militants entered Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul in June 2014 and eventually occupied a large territory that included Christian-populated areas in the Nineveh plains.
Around 200,000 people were displaced, with many fleeing to the autonomous Kurdistan Region. In 2019, Archbishop Basha Matti Warda told the BBC that the Christian community had dwindled by 83 percent to 250,000 from around 1.5 million in 2003.
Visit of Hope
Vina Yaqoub, also from Ainkawa, told Kurdistan 24 that “the pope’s pilgrimage is a historical visit to the Kurdistan Region and Iraq in general. This will bring hope to our Christian community, especially after all the conflicts and the ISIS atrocities in the region. We hope that our people will stay in their homeland in the wake of this visit.”
“The pope’s visit came as a surprise, and we are indeed happy to see this happening. We hope that Christians in Iraq and Kurdistan will live under a better situation after the pope’s visit,” she said.
Dr. Jirjees Nabati, a poet and journalist from Ankawa, told Kurdistan 24 that Francis’ trip offers moral and spiritual support to Christians and “also support to the beloved Kurdistan – do not forget that international papers from across the world will be reporting about this news.”
Hundreds of Western journalists have registered to cover the pope’s visit, bringing what many feel is much-needed attention to Iraq and the Kurdistan Region.
“Since the pope is visiting us here, hopefully will have a better future. The day will come that the pope’s blessing will descend upon Kurdistan, and bring joy to us for its independence,” Nabati added.
“The visit will come as strong support to the Christians, to bring about stability in the lands of our fathers,” he said. “We will feel that there are people behind us supporting our community. Before this, we felt lost, no one came in support and asked about our fate. But in the light of this visit, we hope for more blessings for our people.”
The US State Department’s most recent annual report on religious freedom estimated that an between 10 and 22 Christian families are leaving Iraq and the Kurdistan Region every month, many driven out by discrimination and threats of violence.
A Message of Peace
Dankha Jula, the parish priest of the Cathedral of Saint Joseph who is also responsible for registration for the Erbil Mass, said a visit from the head of the Catholic Church is what Iraqi Christians need today after the violence of 2014 and the “massive persecution that took place against the Christians and minorities, especially after ISIS attacks.”
“Many of our Christians have left the country, but today this is the new hope for us to stay. All the churches, through Pope Francis, they are with us today – not only Christians, not only Yazidis, but all Iraqis who are looking for peace,” he said.
Some health experts have warned against the 84-year-old pontiff holding massive religious gatherings amidst the COVID-19 pandemic as a new variant threatens to sweep through Iraq.
But Jula said that organizers have taken precautions, including limiting attendance at the final service at Franso Hariri Stadium. “The capacity of the stadium is 30,000, but we have only prepared it for 10,000 attendees. That means we will be practicing social distancing,” he said.
“At the same time, we have informed people about the measures and restrictions related to COVID,” he said. “Life is different today, but we have to continue our life, and we are more than happy to have Pope Francis physically among us.”
Editing by Joanne Stocker-Kelly