A man waits for customers inside his fabric shop in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah in the Dhi Qar province, on December 20, 2020. A year of economic agony ends for the pandemic-hit and oil-reliant Iraq, which is scheduled to receive visiting Pope Francis in March next year. (Photo: Asaad Niazi / AFP)
An Iraqi archbishop says Pope Francis’ visit to his West Asian country in March will become a turning point for the nation’s dwindling Christian population.
The visit “has the potential to change the trajectory of the Christian presence in Iraq from one of a disappearing people to one of a surviving and thriving people,” Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil said in a recent interview.
When Pope Francis begins his four-day visit to Iraq on March 4, he will create history as the first pope to visit the country, where Christianity dates back to the first century.
Since the Islamic State’s occupation of northern Iraq in 2014, the number of Christians declined from 102,000 to 36,000.
Though some displaced Christians returned to the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq and rebuilt their houses, many of them are sulking, according to a report by Aid to the Church in Need.Economic instability and security challenges are cited as the main reasons.
Iraqis have been protesting corruption and the lack of economic opportunities since October 2019. The Covid-19 pandemic and collapse of oil prices have further weakened its economy.
“For the present, what we need most is economic opportunity for the people, some path to dignified livelihoods,” Archbishop Warda told the US-based Catholic News Agency in an interview.
Pope Francis is expected to address Iraq’s government leaders. Archbishop Warda said Pope Francis would speak on economic issues out of his concern for the poor.
“The Holy Father has always made it clear that he and the Church are first with the poor and the marginalized, with the working families, and the importance of their ability to live in peace and dignity,” he said.
The presence of Iran-backed militias in the region also threatens Christians.
“Concerning the continuing presence of any militias in Iraq, the Church here has been consistently against their existence as an obstacle to lasting peace in the country,” Archbishop Warda said.
The pope is expected to visit Baghdad and the plain of Ur and Mosul, Erbil, and Qaraqosh in northern Iraq.
The archbishop said that the pope’s visit would strengthen solidarity between the Vatican and Christians in the Middle East.
“We hope that his Holiness will see and feel the deep faith of the Christian witness here in the people that have remained and stayed true in the face of real persecution and suffering for so many years,” he said.
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