ROME – Iraq’s Sunni Muslim President Barham Salih attended a Christmas Eve Mass Thursday, telling faithful the country’s government not only should make every effort to defend Christians and help them return, but to clamp down on extremist violence and root out government corruption.
Speaking from St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Baghdad Dec. 24, Salih said the government “must make serious efforts to enable Iraqi Christians to return, and to live a secure and dignified life in their homeland.”
“Their religious and cultural rights must be protected. As the country’s history shows, they are a major and important part of Iraq’s people,” he said, noting that Iraq is an extremely diverse country, and without Christians, “the strength given us by our diversity of religions and ethnicities, would surely be lost.”
Salih, who processed in alongside Iraqi Cardinal Luis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, spoke shortly after the decision was announced by Iraqi parliament to declare Christmas an annual national holiday.
Previously, Christians had been given Dec. 25 off but it was not considered a holiday for the rest of the population in the Muslim-majority nation. Christmas had been granted a “one-time” holiday in 2008, but that decision was never renewed.
Already being hailed as a direct result of Pope Francis’s decision to visit Iraq from March 5-8, 2021, the decision on Christmas and Salih’s presence at Mass are no doubt signs of goodwill ahead of the pope’s trip, but they may send a message to Iraqi Christians that after decades of discrimination and persecution, there might be a reason for hope.
Under Iraq’s constitution, the presidency is largely a symbolic role with real power invested in parliament and the prime minister.
Iraq faces significant challenges over regional geopolitical tensions and an economic crisis tied to systematic corruption which is hampering efforts to rebuild villages destroyed by ISIS during its 3-year insurgency of the Nineveh Plain, and which has thrown swaths of the population into poverty.
In his speech at Mass, Salih thanked Iraqi parliament for its decision on Christmas, and hailed traditional values taught by Jesus Christ, such as “love, cooperation and tolerance for the sake of humanity, in the spirit of peace and co-existence.”
“We need the language of love instead of hate speech. We need peace instead of conflict and dispute. We need reconciliation, solidarity and unity instead of fighting and division,” he said, insisting on the need to fight for these values in a world marred by war, violent conflict, and extremism.
Recalling the economic and security challenges Iraq has faced in 2020, which were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, Salih pledged to “do as much as is humanly possible” to promote peace going into the new year.
He called the upcoming papal visit to Iraq a source of optimism, citing all the ancient cultures and religions present in the country.
“Over recent years, Iraq’s Christians have suffered because of extremism and terrorism here. This has seen the country lose their human capital as they have been forced to leave their homes, or have been murdered or displaced, by primitive and backward groups,” he said.
“Their brothers from other parts of Iraqi society share in this tragedy,” Salih said, adding, “Terrorism and extremism do not distinguish between religion or nationality. They target all humanity.”
As a new year approaches, Salih said “bold steps” are needed to build “a decent and just government that guarantees a free and dignified life for all its citizens.”
What is needed for this to happen is “a capable and sovereign state able to defend citizens’ rights, to serve its citizens and to restore the leading role Iraq has historically played in the region, and in the world,” he said, stressing the need for vigilance when it comes to the ongoing fight against extremist violence and corruption.
“These cannot be tolerated because they are the true face of terrorism,” he said. “Extremism steals people’s choices and their free will. Corruption steals their livelihoods and erodes the state from within, corroding institutions and the state’s reputation, until it crumbles altogether.”
Calling extremism and corruption are “two sides of the same coin,” Salih praised efforts already made by Iraq to resist terrorism and extremism, saying a “total victory” cannot happen without a deep structural reform.
“We are optimistic about the new year. We hope that it will see the end of the coronavirus pandemic. It should mark the beginning of a new phase of peace and harmony in the region and the world,” he said, saying, “Peace will prevail if righteousness spreads. And we can achieve peace and security, through a spirit of togetherness.”
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