Pope Francis became the first pope to visit Iraq in the 2,000-year history of the papacy and electrified the country with a message of unity and peace.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Fifteen years ago, Hind Hanna escaped Baghdad for the U.S. after Islamic militants threatened her and her family with torture and death because they were Christians. A few days ago, she watched online from her home in Sacramento as Pope Francis walked those same neighborhoods, with cheering crowds waving at him, during a historic pilgrimage.
“They lived three days in happiness,” Hanna, a Syriac Catholic, told the Register. For once, out of four decades of war and violence, she said, “the news was beautiful,” and people saw “this was a home, not just a country.”
The joyous crowds around the Pope, including Iraqis of all religions, she said, was “like a big party of Iraqi people that I used to see.”
“That was my Iraq. That was the Iraq I was born and raised in,” she added, “when we didn’t know what it meant to be afraid, to hate.”
Pope Francis’ March 5-8 visit to Iraq has inspired the U.S. Iraqi Christian diaspora, most of whom are Catholic and have longed to see this day. Pope Francis made the journey to Iraq, despite concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic and Iraq’s internal security. But not even rocket attacks ahead of the trip aimed at Baghdad’s “green zone,” and heated exchanges between Iranian-backed militias and U.S. forces, could deter the Holy Father from fulfilling a promise for the successor of St. Peter to make an apostolic visit to Iraq.
Father Simon Esshaki, a Chaldean Catholic priest serving St. Michael Chaldean Catholic Church in San Diego, told the Register that “our people were just overwhelmed with joy that the Pope went there.”
“I think this was a huge sign of hope to Iraq and the whole Middle East,” said Father Esshaki.
The priest said many in the Chaldean Catholic community had fears that the Holy Father was not going to go, between the COVID-19 pandemic and the volatile security situation. Because Pope Francis went to Iraq regardless, he said, “People got to see his love for them firsthand.”
Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to Iraq provided powerful symbols of Catholic and ecumenical unity with Iraq’s Christian communities.
Right at the start of the Pope’s journey, the Mass at the Sayedat al-Najat (Our Lady of Salvation) Syriac Catholic Cathedral provided powerful symbolism of Catholic unity. Pope Francis celebrated a Chaldean Rite Mass — the liturgy proper to the Chaldean Catholic Church, which is the largest Catholic Church in Iraq — in the cathedral of the Syriac Catholic Church. Both the Chaldean and the Syriac Catholic Churches are in communion with the Pope, who is the head of the Latin Church. It was an unusual sight, explained Hanna, “But it showed we are one.”
“Our community felt it here in Detroit,” Father Perrin Atisha, a U.S.-born Catholic priest of the St. Thomas Chaldean Catholic Diocese based in Detroit, told the Register. Father Atisha’s path to the priesthood overlapped the genocide of Christians in Iraq, and he went to Iraq in 2016 as part of his pastoral formation — sometimes being no more than a mile from the front line with ISIS.
The Chaldean Mass was celebrated in Italian, but when the Pope spoke the words “Peace be with you” in Aramaic, the traditional language of the Chaldean Mass, it moved him profoundly.
And he saw how alive people were in their faith with the Pope — a powerful symbol of Christ himself — in their midst. People sang the Palm Sunday hymns and waved palm branches, a symbol of peace and victory.
“I think that’s what he brought to Iraq, which was peace,” Father Atisha said.
Father Atisha said that for Pope Francis to insist on going, despite the risk, “shows what a good shepherd he is.”
Hanna, whose uncles and cousins belong to the Syriac Orthodox Church, said the Pope’s gestures of love and respect toward the Syriac Orthodox and Assyrian Church of the East bishops showed the Christians “coming together as one.”
Meeting With Ayatollah al-Sistani
One of the pivotal moments of the Iraq trip was the Pope’s March 6 meeting in Najaf with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani , the top Shiite Muslim leader of Iraq followed by an interfaith gathering of Iraq’s religious leaders on the plains of Ur. Following the meeting, the ayatollah said that Christians should be able to live in peace in Iraq and possess the same rights as other Iraqis.
Hanna believes the Pope’s visit with Sistani was critical to securing a future for Christians in Iraq and their rights. She hopes al-Sistani’s words will carry weight, as many Christians suffer unemployment due to discrimination by Shiite-controlled militias.
Pope Francis also made clear and unequivocal statements before Muslims, Yazidis and Christians that drew praise, as well. Father Atisha said he was “amazed” as he listened to Pope Francis’ prayer in Mosul — a city that saw thousands killed in a nine-month battle to liberate it from Islamic State militia — speak about the nature of God.
“If God is the God of life — for so he is — then it is wrong for us to kill our brothers and sisters in his name,” Pope Francis prayed, denouncing war and hatred in God’s name.
“What boldness and courage to proclaim the truth,” Father Atisha said.
Father Esshaki said Catholics and Christians of Iraqi heritage know that the situation will not change overnight.
“What we hope is that the government and those in authority,” he said, start reviving Christian communities and restoring their destroyed churches.
“If Christians had their support, it would make Christians feel safe,” he said.
Hopes for the Future
Martin Manna, head of the Michigan-based Chaldean Community Foundation and Chaldean Chamber of Commerce, told the Register that Pope Francis “really provided a light” with his historic visit, and he hopes people will call on the U.S. and Iraqi governments to pursue steps that will help build on the momentum for peace and unity.
Manna said it will be critical for Iraq to put in place a national education campaign about the importance and contributions of Iraq’s indigenous Christians, establish real security on the Nineveh Plains, with local police forces representative of their communities, and also to dialogue and reconcile differences between Iraq’s central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, so Christians are no longer caught in the middle.
But Manna said many Iraqis felt their government for the first time had been functional with the Pope’s visit. People now joke, “Iraq never looked so good! We wish the Pope could come back every month!”
Hanna herself said the coming weeks will show whether the Pope’s visit creates a new national resolve for Iraq to achieve a brighter future.
“All of us — we hope,” she said. “I hope Iraq becomes like how I saw it on TV for those three days.”