The Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, Louis Raphael Cardinal Sako, has welcomed the announcement of Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to Iraq, scheduled for March 5-8 of 2021.
The visit to Iraq will be Francis’s first since November of 2019. Several papal trips were slated for 2020, but the coronavirus emergency made travel impossible.
Speaking to VaticanNews on Monday, Cardinal Sako – Iraq’s senior Catholic bishop and the spiritual leader of Catholics who belong to the ancient Chaldean ritual Church – called Pope Francis a man who promotes peace and fraternity, and noted that his visit comes at a moment in which the people of the country are facing major challenges: “We are living in a bad situation,” He said, “not only the pandemic but also the political situation, [the] economic situation.”
Regarding the Christian exodus from their ancient homeland, Cardinal Sako noted that the very presence of Christians in the Middle East is at risk. “It gives us great hope,” therefore, he said, “to hear [Pope Francis’s] speeches and his encouragement to remain in our land.”
Iraq’s Christian population numbers several hundred thousand. Scores of thousands of Iraq Christians suffered terribly, along with other religious minorities, when militants of the so-called Islamic State seized large swaths of the country between 2014 and 2017. The militants drove many of them from their homes, forcing them to choose between dispossession and flight, with the attendant risks of death by exposure, disease, and starvation; or else immediate death.
Many in Iraq and neighbouring countries continue to suffer enormous and appalling hardship.
Pope Francis’s message, Cardinal Sako said, “is not just for Iraqis but also for the people of Syria and Lebanon,” both of which have endured great trials: sometimes directly at the hands of so-called IS militants, other times as a result of the instability the militancy has wrought. Syria has been lacerated by its own protracted civil war. Lebanon – despite political stalemate and economic disarray threatening to destabilise the entire country – has welcomed tens of thousands of refugees from Iraq and perhaps as many as a million from Syria.