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The Pope’s trip to Iraq could be the most dangerous yet.  But the country’s declining Christian minority hopes it will heal their wounds


The sacristy, a tiny room next to the altar, is full of bad memories. Dozens of worshipers sought refuge here as terrorists besieged the church. Many were shot or killed by grenades, leaving behind bloodstained handprints on the walls. Natiq, along with his wife and child, were among them.

Today, the Church of Our Lady of Salvation is adorned with the engraved names of those who were murdered that day – 51 worshipers and two priests.

The attack left Anwar partially blinded, his right arm badly injured.

With half-closed eyes, he looks towards a new addition to the church: a white throne, placed under an imposing collage of the martyrs of the parish. Pope Francis is expected to deliver a speech here upon his arrival in Iraq on Friday.

“I am extremely happy. I am very, very happy,” said Anwar, looking forward to the visit. Despite his effusive words, the guard looks a little taken aback. “I want to tell him to take care of us”, he added, “because the state does not take care of us”.

But Anwar will not be part of the small gathering of church members to greet the Pontiff here on his historic visit. Crowds are being kept away due to the pandemic.

Instead, the papal visit – a four-day, six-city tour of the country – will be limited to a handful of small gatherings and visits to Bible-related sites.

The vast majority of Iraqi Christians will watch the tour – the first of a pontiff in Iraq – on television. A full curfew is imposed for the duration of the trip.

These strict measures were taken to mitigate the risks of the visit, considered Pope Francis’ most dangerous trip to date, both due to a nationwide spike in coronavirus cases and due to an upsurge in violence in this war-torn country.

“Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq highlights the importance of our country to the faithful around the world,” said a senior official in the president’s office. “It is also an assertion of [the] The pope’s support for peace in Iraq, a testament to the veneration of Iraqi Christians.

“This visit comes at a difficult time for Iraq, but we are taking all necessary precautions against coronaviruses,” the official said.

The trip, announced last December, was expected to be canceled.

The Pope’s trip to Iraq could be the most dangerous yet.  But the country’s declining Christian minority hopes it will heal their wounds
At the end of January, a double suicide bombing claimed by ISIS shook a bustling market in Baghdad. Rocket attacks by Iranian-backed armed groups targeting US positions in the country have become more frequent. And just three days before the Pope’s planned arrival, rockets hit an air base housing US troops.

The Covid-19 outbreak in the country also continues unabated – last weekend the Vatican’s own envoy to Iraq Mitja Leskovar tested positive for the virus.

Yet the Pope insists he will not let the Iraqis down.

At the end of a general audience on Wednesday, the pontiff made no mention of the deterioration of the security situation in Iraq but declared: “For some time now, I want to meet these people who have suffered so much, and to meet this Martyred Church. ”

“The Iraqi people are waiting for us. They were waiting for Saint Pope John Paul II, who was not allowed to go,” he said, referring to a trip planned in 2000 which was canceled after a breakdown talks between the Vatican. then President Saddam Hussein. “People cannot be disappointed a second time. Let us pray that this trip goes well.”

The Vatican called the trip an “act of love”.

“All precautions have been taken from a health point of view,” Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni told reporters at a press briefing on Tuesday. “The best way to interpret the trip is as an act of love; it is a gesture of love from the Pope towards the inhabitants of this land who need to receive it.”

This is a message that rings true for many Iraqis.

The Pope’s trip to Iraq could be the most dangerous yet.  But the country’s declining Christian minority hopes it will heal their wounds

In addition to Our Lady of Salvation, Pope Francis is set to visit several other sites associated with some of Iraq’s worst tragedies during its decades of unrest, including Mosul, the largest city occupied and ravaged by The Islamic State.

He will also hold a meeting at a cathedral in the predominantly Christian northern town of Qaraqosh. ISIS has converted the courtyard of the Church of the Immaculate Conception into a shooting range. They burned down the contents of the church, blackening the interiors and destroying its statues. ISIS operatives piled up the church’s bibles, books and prayer books and set them on fire. A large black stain in the courtyard remains, marking the spot where they were burned.

Christians in Iraq want the pontiff to heal their wounds. But they also hope the trip will highlight the plight of their declining community. Before the 2003 American invasion, there were 1.5 million Christians in the country. About 80% of them have since fled the country, according to the country’s main Christian clerics.

Other minorities who contributed to Iraq’s once dazzling diversity are also rapidly disappearing, including the Mandaans – followers of pre-Islamic monotheistic faiths – and Yazidis, who have borne the brunt of the horrors of ISIS. during the extremist group’s years of reign of terror in northern Iraq.
The Pope’s trip to Iraq could be the most dangerous yet.  But the country’s declining Christian minority hopes it will heal their wounds

“What scares me is that during this period no one has asked what we have, for example, lost,” Bashar Warda, Chaldean archbishop of the northern city of Erbil, told CNN. . “We have a decreasing number of Mandeans, and now Yazidis, Christians.

“They don’t care,” he said, referring to Baghdad’s political elite. “How they didn’t care when we lost the Jewish community in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. And this cycle is going on.”

Sabah Zeitoun moved to Sweden, which is now home to a large Arab Christian community, about 21 years ago. He is back in Erbil for a visit, and has extended his trip in order to be here for the Pope’s tour.

He thinks those who left the country are gone for good. “I don’t think anyone will come back from Europe,” said the 65-year-old. “It would be difficult.”

Zeitoun served as a soldier for eight years during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s. He was deployed to Kuwait during the invasion of the country by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Upon his return, he opened a liquor store in Mosul. In 2000, he said he was arrested and detained for three days for keeping his store open for five minutes beyond the country’s legal closing time. It was then that he decided to leave Iraq.

‘A mission of peace’

In a busy cafe in Baghdad, a young engineer and a political scientist seriously discuss the Pope’s visit. The conversation between the two young Shia Muslims started out as a joke about the three-day lockdown, but quickly evolved into a conversation about the regional implications of the trip.

“People, Christians and Muslims alike see the Pope as a man of peace,” said political scientist Mumen Tariq, 30. “This visit gives Iraq a new role on the world stage.”

There is surprising hope in their view of the political situation in Iraq. “The Pope’s visit comes at a really important time,” said engineer Mohammed Al-Khadayyar. “It is coming to the grave of ISIS, and which will hopefully mark the beginning of the peace page. It will push us to move away from regional rifts and to a place of moderation.”

Asked if they were disturbed by the embarrassing state lockdown, Tariq said: “We are prepared to spend three days, a week, 10 days or even a month in lockdown if the mission of the Pope is a peace mission. ”

The Pope’s trip to Iraq could be the most dangerous yet.  But the country’s declining Christian minority hopes it will heal their wounds

Back at the Church of Salvation, a handful of worshipers decorate the courtyard nativity scene in preparation for the visit. Two veiled Shia women ask to enter the church but are arrested for security reasons. Deacon Louis Climis explains that Muslims regularly come here to pray.

A nun laments that the Pope is not scheduled to visit a tiny museum set up in the church quarters to commemorate the massacre, but the rest of the faithful are keen to keep their hopes up for the visit to come.

“The Iraqi Christian wants to tell the Pope that we are sick and need medicine,” said Climis, who also survived the massacre. “We need advice because we are in a jungle, a jungle ruled by political monsters.”

The massacre deepened Guardian Anwar’s Christian faith, but eroded his faith in the Iraqi authorities.

For years, he compiled documents demanding government compensation for his injuries, as he had to give up his career as a carpenter following the attack. Then, one day, he gave up on seeking reparations from the government.

“I gathered the papers into a pile and sprinkled them with alcohol,” Anwar said, reconstructing the scene with his hands. “And then I set them on fire.”

CNN’s Delia Gallagher contributed to this report from Rome. CNN’s Arwa Damon and Aqeel Najm contributed to this report from Baghdad.

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