ROME – In a Christmas message meant to console his people, the head of the largest Catholic community in Iraq outlined the agenda for the pope’s upcoming trip, indicating two paths the country can take as it tries to put the pieces of a broken nation back together.
In his Dec. 22 message, Cardinal Luis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, said the message Jesus taught his followers is that “God is the Father of all humanity, and that we are brothers of one family.”
Pointing to Pope Francis’s encyclical on human fraternity Fratelli Tutti, published in October, Sako embraced the document’s message, which he said is “to be sincere brothers rather than fighting each other.”
Applying this to his home turf, Sako said, “Christians and Muslims should leave their differences aside, love and serve each other as family members.”
“Let us join hands as one team to change our situation and overcome these crises and give the priority to our homeland, by mutual respect that consolidate values of coexistence,” he said, saying Iraq is currently “at the crossroads facing the most difficult challenge.”
Right now, citizens of all backgrounds and religious creeds, he said, have a choice to make: “either to re-initiate our relations on good principles to rebuild our country on sound rules, or the storm will lead us to the worst!”
Sako’s message is especially potent amid Iraq’s current climate.
Iraqi Christians themselves have endured decades of discrimination and persecution at the hands of radical groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS – a complex reality compounded by a dire national economic crisis made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.
With a weakened healthcare system, large portions of the population still displaced, and with poverty and geopolitical tensions on the rise, many fear Iraq’s long-term stability.
Christians themselves are either migrating abroad or pondering how to resettle in a land where for decades they have been treated as second-class citizens.
Pope Francis’s March 5-8 visit to Iraq, his first international trip in over a year due to travel complications related to COVID-19, is expected to address several of these issues.
When he goes, the pope is slated to visit the cities of Baghdad, Erbil, Qaraqosh, Mosul, and the Plain of Ur, traditionally held to be the birthplace of the biblical figure of Abraham.
The overwhelming hope is that Pope Francis’s visit will bring some much-needed encouragement to Iraq’s Christian population, but there are also those who expect the pontiff to make a clear appeal for peace at both the regional and national levels.
A unanimous decision last week by Iraqi parliament declaring Christmas an annual national holiday has already been hailed by locals as an initial impact of the pope’s visit.
Given Francis’s commitment to interfaith dialogue, his numerous efforts to reach out to the Muslim world, and his constant emphasis on brotherhood, it’s likely that the appeal for fraternal solidarity will be a recurring theme during his visit, particularly given Iraq’s vastly diverse ethnic and religious landscape.
In his message, Sako recognizes that Christians for over 20 years have celebrated Christmas “in an insecure condition,” and that this has worsened as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
With a situation such as this, he stressed the need to prioritize, focusing on the meaning of Christmas rather than on the “appearance” of festivities, which will be limited to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Despite all the circumstances, Christmas remains a source of hope and strength to restore spiritual serenity through our intimate celebration within the family and the Church community based on the real meaning of Christmas,” he said, noting that Jesus spent his life on earth in “a relationship of love, solidarity, and service with the people.”
“This is what we should meditate on at Christmas and look for a way to live it on daily life,” Sako said, saying that to do this will help “sanctify our efforts towards a better future.”
Sako said this type of internal conversion takes place only “when the community is united in love and prayers that bring light, warmth, comfort, and helps in generating confidence and enthusiasm to continue walking forward together.”
Stressing the importance of solidarity, he said Christmas is a prime opportunity to be attentive to others’ needs and to “a helping hand to the needy,” particularly those who are unemployed or students who have had to halt their studies as a result of the pandemic.
The Chaldean patriarchate itself, he said, during 2020 has provided some $150,000 in assistance to the poor and needy, regardless of their religious or ethnic background.
“Faith, prayer and charitable contributions would prepare us to celebrate Christmas and the new year, so that God may shower our hearts with His graces and blessings,” he said, adding, “This way, we will gain the strength to overcome the trial and enjoy the angels’ hymn of peace on Christmas Eve: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace and good hope for human beings,’ peace in Iraq and hope for Iraqis.”
Sako closed praying for peace in Iraq and throughout the world, and for an end to the coronavirus pandemic. He urged local Christians to seize the opportunity of the pope’s visit by “being creative in preparing for such an important event for the sake of our country and the region.”
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