Before Pope Francis left for his historic trip to Iraq, several observers objected to the risks he was taking, given the security situation and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. However, one American working in the country said, “it’s never an optimal time to come here.”

“If you waited until it was safe and stable you would never come, because it hasn’t been stable in decades. So this is kind of baked in to the trip, if you will, said Stephen Rasche, an American lawyer who in 2015 decided to dedicate his career to the Archdioceses of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. He is currently vice chancellor at Catholic University in Erbil.

Rasche is the author of The Disappearing People. The Tragic Fate of Christians in the Middle East, and spoke with Crux and Polish Television ahead of the papal trip while he was preparing for the papal Mass in Erbil on Sunday.

“I would like to say that I’m surprised by the grace and the fortitude of the local people here in just doing the work that needs to be done in the midst of this adversity,” Rasche said, counting the COVID pandemic, lockdowns, and travel bans across the region as major obstacles.

“But I’m not surprised because this is what they had to deal with for years and years and they just persevere, and I expected nothing less,” he added.

The team preparing for the visit, Rasche said, was also heartened by the stubbornness of Pope Francis “even with all the difficulties of this trip in trying to put it together with our small staff – to see the continuing courage of the Holy Father that just kept saying, ‘I will come’  – you know with rockets attacks and whatever – he has not deterred.”

He said there was a momentum developing from the papal attitude that “there is a real sense of solidarity and courage that we’re beginning to feel now – a month ago … this was just a lot of work. How will we pull it off? But now the determination of the Holy Father is having an effect, a very positive one.”

The magnitude of the Christian history of Iraq is as large as the magnitude of the current suffering of the country’s Christian communities. In 2003, before the US intervention in Iraq, an estimated 1.5 million Christians lived in the country. After years of war, capped by the ISIS genocide, the number of Christians in Iraq now numbers barely 500,000.

Rasche said he hopes that the apostolic trip will send a message to governments locally and around the world “that these Christians need to be protected, need to be treated as people with equal rights, with dignity, so that they can remain as part of the fabric of this land.”

For Rasche, the importance of the papal encounter with Iraq lays not in the fraternal moments with Islamic leaders in the country, but in the moments shared with the suffering Christians of the ancient land.

“For the Christians in Iraq the most important thing is that it’s a statement to them that the Holy Father, that the Vatican, the Universal Church has not forgotten them,” he said.

“They hope and pray that this is the reflection to the rest of world – look this small group of people, the Christians remaining here  – they’re important to the Holy Father, and so they should be important to you,” Rasche continued, adding Iraqi Christians hope the message will be delivered to the United States, to the European Union, and to the governments around the world, “that the Holy Father is with these people.”

Rasche noted that the reaction of the Universal Church to the 2013-2017 ISIS terror was slow and very modest. With the exception of Christian organizations working on the ground, including Aid to the Church in Need, the Knights of Columbus, Missio, and many other private Christian organizations, Christians felt abandoned.

The sign of solidarity from the Vatican came in 2018, when the Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans and head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, Louis Raphaël I Sako, was created cardinal.

“This was a statement,” Rasche said, adding that Iraqi Christians “had a historic visit of Cardinal Parolin on Christmas two years ago,” which was “a huge event and desperately needed” for Christians who felt they’re only part of the discussion of the refugees in the region, and disappointed that the Vatican has not put more attention on their suffering brothers and sisters.

Francis is the first pope to set foot in the land of Abraham, although Pope St. John Paul II intended to come in the year 2000, yet an upsurge in hostilities kept the trip from happening.

The determination of Pope Francis to go to Iraq, said Rasche, is comparable to the spirit of John Paul visiting communist Poland in 1979.

“The country that was breaking apart, so many difficulties and here in Iraq – it’s a broken country but is it not exactly the country where the Pope should go?”

Follow Paulina Guzik on Twitter: @Guzik_Paulina