Iraq hoping for Pope Francis visit

Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako has said that the tiny Christian community of Iraq are hopeful that Pope Francis will make a visit to the troubled land.

“We need his presence among us, so that he can give us so much strength, so much hope, not only for Christians but for everyone,” the Iraqi prelate told Vatican Radio. He has issued several public requests for a papal visit, saying that the Pontiff’s security would be assured while he was in Iraq.

Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, insisted that Pope Francis retains a “very deep” concern for the Church in Iraq.

Cardinal Filoni, the author of a new book on the history of the Church in Iraq, once served as apostolic nuncio in Iraq and has twice been sent by Pope Francis as a special envoy there. The Pontiff is concerned, Cardinal Filoni said, “first of all because at the moment, Christians along with other small minorities are the poor ones in the situation because they have had to leave everything behind, not just their homes but everything they owned, remaining with nothing but the shirt they had on their backs.

“The Pope has played an important role – and everyone recognises this – in focusing international attention on the war” and on persecuted Christians, he added.

The Christians of Iraq are considered to be one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world. The vast majority are Eastern Aramaic-speaking ethnic Assyrians.

Christians numbered about 1,500,000 in 2003, representing just over 6% of the population of the country down from 12% in 1947.

However, after the US-led invasion of Iraq, it was estimated that the number of Christians had dropped to less than 450,000 by 2013 – with estimates as low as 200,000.

Christians live primarily in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Arbil and Kirkuk and in Assyrian towns and regions such as the Nineveh Plains in the north.

After the invasion of Iraq, violence against Christians rose, with reports of abduction, torture, bombings and killings. 

Some Christians were pressured to convert to Islam under threat of death or expulsion, and women were ordered to wear Islamic dress.

Last July, the so-called Islamic State decreed that all Christians in the area of its control must pay a special tax of approximately €425 per family, convert to Islam, or die. Many of them have fled to nearby Kurdish-controlled regions of Iraq.