ROME – As Pope Francis sets off for Iraq, a panel of experts have praised the trip as both courageous and a strong sign of support to the country’s Christians, voicing hope that his visit will help foster a stronger sense of national unity, regardless of ethnic or religious background.

Speaking from an airplane boarding bridge, U.S. Congressman Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska said he believes “the pope’s visit is nothing short of miraculous.”

“An old man, in the midst of the pandemic, is going at the behest of Muslims’ invitation to one of the most troubled parts of the world while Iranian militias are firing rockets at US troops. It’s nothing short of miraculous,” he said.

Fortenberry voiced his hope that the trip would be “a turning point for modern Iraq to go back to its past, where there was a mosaic history of religious pluralism,” and where different religious communities were able to live in peace.

He said he also hopes the pope can send a broader message to the world that Iraq is “a place of human dignity.”

“‘We are all brothers’ has to be the reigning paradigm of the 21st century or we will lose the fundamentals of civilization itself,” he said, referring to the motto of the papal trip, “because we have the capability to destroy one another either through ideology or weaponry in an instant. That’s where we are.”

While this might seem like a difficult and daunting task, it is possible “If we can continue on this trajectory and have extraordinary, courageous people like those who are hosting the pope in Iraq continue to speak forwardly,” he said.

A Republican who has served as the U.S. representative for Nebraska’s first congressional district since 2005, Fortenberry called the persecution of Christians and other minorities throughout the world “the most emerging emergency” of modern times, particularly in the Middle East.

“The Christians of the Middle East have as much right to be there as anybody else. It’s an ancient tradition that helped form the mosaic of morality there. It has always been under stress but that’s part of the mission. But to be targeted because of religion, to be treated as second-class, this isn’t just a matter of the rights of Christians in the Middle East or any others, it’s a matter of human dignity,” he said.

He insisted on the need to create conditions of security, and voiced hope that the pope’s visit would plant the seeds in Iraq’s diverse population of an increased respect for those with differing beliefs.

Fortenberry spoke during a March 4 webinar organized by In Defense of Christians titled “You are All Brothers,” after the motto of the papal visit to Iraq.

Pope Francis is visiting Iraq March 5-8, making him the first pope to set foot in the country. Previous popes, including St. John Paul II, attempted to visit Iraq, but were unable to, making Francis’s visit the fulfillment of a long-held papal dream.

During his visit, Francis will make stops in Baghdad, Erbil, Qaraqosh, Mosul, Najaf, and the Plain of Ur, traditionally recognized as the birthplace of Abraham. While in Najaf, he will meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, widely considered to be Shia Islam’s most authoritative cleric.

In addition to Fortenberry, other panelists in Thursday’s webinar voiced hope that the pope’s visit would help foster a stronger national identity among Iraqis, uniting them as citizens of one country, rather than staying divided by individual ethnic and religious communities.

Christians and other minorities in Iraq have been the target of discrimination and violence for decades.

Though they are not as threatened as they were during the 2014-2017 ISIS occupation of the Nineveh Plain, Christians remain at risk. In the past 20 years, their numbers have drastically decreased in Iraq. Currently, there are roughly 300,000-500,000, just one fifth of the total before the US-Iraq war in 2003.

Mar Awa Royal, a bishop of the Assyrian Church of the East presiding over California and in charge of ecumenical affairs, said in his remarks that he expects Pope Francis to send the message that “all Iraqis should be coming together under the umbrella of Iraq.”

The Assyrian Church’s traditional heartland is in Iraq, although now much of its membership lives in the diaspora.

“No matter what religion they belong to, they should first and foremost appreciate the fact that they are Iraqis and that they will be able to work together to rebuild their country as Iraqis,” he said, noting that Iraq is “not only the cradle of civilization, but it’s also the cradle of Christianity in all of Mesopotamia.”

Asked what he hopes the international community takes away from the papal visit, Royal said a the promotion of tolerance is at the top of his list, which he said can be promoted not only through conferences and symposiums, but greater collaboration with and among local communities.

Dr. Elie Abouaoun, the Middle East/North Africa director for the United States Institute of Peace, said he believes Pope Francis’s visit to Iraq at a time of pandemic and continued security threats sends a message “of courage and defiance.”

“My hope is that this visit will not only consist of generic messages of a moral nature, but that it goes beyond this in addressing very specific concerns of the Christians and other minorities in Iraq,” he said, noting that the main reason Christians are leaving and not returning is that “they lack the sensation of safety and security.”

“So the issue goes beyond reconstruction. There is a real issue of how safe they feel, and they don’t. This means that one of the priorities is to revisit the security arrangements in these areas,” he said, and suggested creating “clusters” of Christian communities that are protected by locals and have accountable oversight.

“The demographic imbalance is a fight the Christians will not win,” he said, insisting on the need for safety and protection for Christians and a greater national push for “diversity management.”

Karmella Borashan, director of Laboratory Services for the Assyrian Aid Society, said she believes the papal visit underlines the importance of maintaining Iraq’s diverse ethnic and religious fabric, “and preserving not only the Christian identity, but their deep-rooted ethnic identity.”

“However, this visit will need to come with the implementation of human rights, security, and structure for self-economic reliance,” she said, adding, “when justice dies, civilization dies, and that has been our case in our region.”

All efforts to rebuild are “in vain when there is no security. Security is on top of the list. All of this can be built and shattered in a second, as we saw with ISIS,” she said.

Pope Francis “can promote and emphasize security in that region,” she said, noting that “having economic independence, and most importantly, the security that is lacking in that region” is the most important effect the visit can have.

Abouaoun voiced his hope that the pope’s trip will also “create momentum for discussion about tangible issues, because this is what’s really needed on the ground.”

Noting that the problems Iraq faces are both political and social, he insisted that “If we really want to solve the problem, we need to work at the political and social levels.”

Royal stressed the importance of praying for the pope’s visit, and for his health and safety during the 4-day trip.

“It’s a visit that’s taken 21 years to come about,” he said. “My hope is that the discussions that do take place will be continued even after the pope’s departure and that there will be frank discussions among the political and religious components on the ground.”

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