Pope Francis began an historic visit to Iraq on Friday, the first by a pontiff to the birthplace of the Eastern churches from where more than a million Christians have fled over the past 20 years.
The pope’s visit has a highly symbolic value given the importance of Iraqi Christians in the history of the faith and their cultural and linguistic legacy dating back to the time of ancient Babylon, nearly 4,000 years ago.
The systematic persecution of Iraqi Christians at the hands of al-Qaeda and then ISIL (ISIS) in more recent years has pushed tens of thousands to leave and is threatening the community’s survival.
Francis met the dwindling Christian communities of Baghdad, Mosul and Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city in the Nineveh Plains, where, in 2014, the ISIL armed group wiped out the remnants of the Christian presence that had survived al-Qaeda’s violent campaigns, causing tens of thousands to flee and find refuge in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
In Erbil, the pope met the Kurdish authorities and some of the 150,000 Christian refugees from central Iraq.
Pope Francis prayed for “victims of war” outside a ruined church in Iraq’s Mosul, where ISIL ravaged one of the world’s oldest Christian communities until its defeat three years ago.
With the partially collapsed walls of the centuries-old Al-Tahera (Immaculate Conception) Church behind him, Pope Francis made a plea for Christians in Iraq and the Middle East to stay in their homelands.
The pope, who in 2019 inaugurated a new phase of interfaith dialogue between the Roman Church and Islam, also visited Najaf to meet Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shia authority in Iraq where Shia Muslims represent about 70 percent of the total population.