Bergoglio in Iraq: the Father of all travels


A member of the Iraqi forces walks past a mural depicting Pope Francis waving next to an Iraqi national flag drawn on a blast wall outside the Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Deliverance in the Karrada district of Iraq’s capital Baghdad on March 1, 2021 amidst preparations ahead of the pontiff’s visit. (Photo by Sabah ARAR / AFP) (Photo by SABAH ARAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Over 340 million Christians persecuted in the world; those killed for reasons of faith have increased by 60% in the past year, as reported from the report of the Onlus Porte Aperte Italia, in the World Watch List 2021. Iraq occupies the eleventh place in the world ranking, where in 2003 there were over one and a half million Christians, today there are about 300 thousand left: these numbers are presented to us by Monsignor Bashar Warda, bishop of Erbil is one of the figures that Pope Francis will receive during his journey to the land of Abraham.
Four days of very intense visits that are the answer to those who pointed the finger at Bergoglio, accusing him of thinking only of refugees, forgetting the many Christians who suffer persecution. Personally, I am convinced that the Pope knows when to act, how to act and why to act. Without letting oneself be exploited.

Peter’s successor will meet the local church, visit the places of persecution, martyrdom and reconstruction. Just as it is true that the Church of the first millennium was born from the blood of the martyrs, Sanguis martyrum – semen christianorum, so also in our century the martyrs have returned, often unknown, almost never under the eye of the media except when victims of striking gestures. From these new martyrs the Church of the third millennium starts again: “My dream is to see the Pope in these lands”, told us Hala, one of the Christians who fled from Mosul, staring at the image of Jesus hanging on the wall. Tears streamed down her face as she remembered the persecutions endured by ISIS militias.
We have been in this land that saw the birth of the three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, “daughters” of Abraham, father of many peoples. Here the dioceses, the priests, the nuns are next to the Christian refugees.

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In Qaraqosh we reached the Church of the Resurrection, accompanied by Father Majeed Attalla. The roof was uprooted and the walls destroyed by Kalashnikov bullets, our eyes stopped on many details as Father Attalla pointed out what had happened all around: 116 houses bombed, 2228 burned by the ideological fury of Isis. Erasing is the motto of violence. Charred pieces of wood on the ground, between glass and stones, were nothing more than the burning benches of the church. “We were not ready”, are the words of the Chaldean bishop of Erbil, Monsignor Bashar Warda, when we asked him if, as a community, they had not underestimated the problem of what can be called the new biblical exodus. A real decimation: “We had to learn to take care of them, to rebuild, to mend the social fabric, to restore work and dignity”.
After Qaraqosh we reached Alqosh, where in the sacristy vaults we find the registers of the baptisms of Baghdad and Mosul. Their ink immediately made us understand the harsh truth: Christians are disappearing in these areas.

With the young superior of the monks of Sant’Antonio Abate, we manage to reach Mosul, hiding the cameras under the jackets, pen and notebook under the cassock. Five checkpoints crossed not without fear. Here, in addition to the monastery of San Giorgio, completely destroyed, transformed into an ISIS prison, we met one of the ten Christian families of this city: “We will not give each other peace until our church is rebuilt”, they immediately specified. They lived there even knowing that their neighbors have already betrayed them once.
As we walked along the street, we were reminded of the words that Christ crucified addressed to St. Francis: “Go and rebuild my house, which as you see is in ruins”. No person has ever forgotten the threats received by Daesh soldiers: “Either you convert or go away, otherwise we will kill you”. Now I’m waiting for a job, I’m looking for an opportunity. The priests go on with the stole and the apron by donating the sacraments and trying to create hospitals, schools and social centers.

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On the way back to Erbil, we passed through Karamlesh and Bartella. The Syrian Catholic bishop, Monsignor Yohanna Mouche, welcomed us to show us the courtyard of the largest church in the Middle East, used by ISIS as a training school. In the walls riddled by the Kalashnikovs the bullets could still be seen embedded. As we left the courtyard, the young people greeted us. Their smile represents the hope of this community. How can they handle so much suffering? The answer is in the homeland of Abraham, it is here that the earth becomes history. The Church knows that the protection of Iraqi Christians goes through overcoming the sectarianism that has made them victims, even in recent times.

Bergoglio is also well aware that during his stop in Najaf he will meet the great Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani and it will be “one of the highlights” of the apostolic journey to Iraq according to Monsignor Warduni, auxiliary bishop of Baghdad, who describes the Shiite leader “not a politician, but a man of faith ”who works for brotherhood. Also underlining the importance of the moment are the statements that Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of His Holiness, made to the microphones of Vatican News: “Al-Sistani is one of the most symbolic, most significant personalities in the Shiite world; he has always spoken out in favor of peaceful coexistence within Iraq, saying that all ethnic groups, religious groups, are part of the country. This is very important because it goes in the proper sense and direction of building this fraternity between Christians and Muslims, which should characterize the country. ” Parolin will accompany the Pontiff in this apostolic “mission”.

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Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul, Qaraqosh, the plain of Ur are the stages of Pope Francis’ apostolic journey: “a journey in which – recalled Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans – we will talk about mutual respect, interreligious dialogue and search for common principles between Christianity and Islam ”. A journey under the banner of “You are all Brothers” taken from the Gospel of Matthew, to overcome the evils and “the shadows of a closed world” (Brothers All).
A pilgrimage that represents the Father of all journeys.

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