ROME– Amid an ongoing war that has caused the majority of Iraqi Christians to flee their homes in the last two years, the Catholic Chaldean Church had a two-day meeting recently to try to breathe new life into pastoral outreach programs in an attempt to boost the faith of those who remain.
The June 20-21 encounter took place in Erbil, Iraq’s Kurdistan region, where hundreds of thousands of Christians have found shelter after fleeing Mosul and the Niniveh Plain following the advances of the Islamist Terrorist group ISIS in 2014.
Addressing the clergy gathered, Chaldean Patriarch Raphael Louis Sako said the local Christian community expected “spiritual, liturgical and pastoral” reforms that would meet their current situation, calling for a further inclusion of the laity in diocesan and parish councils.
“These reforms may help them also to continue making history and to bridge the gap with their fellow citizens through enhancing cooperation and coexistence, rather than retreating,” he said.
The scope of the meeting was boosting the “faith and hope” of Chaldeans both in Iraq and those living in diaspora around the world, setting the focus on the gospel teachings for “human, spiritual, and national awakening” in the face of the many challenges and risks the community faces.
According to Sako, who published a note on the website of the patriarchate ahead of the encounter, the gathering of Chaldean clergy presented an opportunity to reflect upon Iraq’s “rapid political and sociological changes” in the last decade.
Since the US invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the country has seen a dramatic change in its social composition, with minorities such as the various Christian denominations and the Yazidis desperately trying to flee. In 2003, over 1.5 million Christians represented 6 percent of the total population.
A decade later, the number has dropped down to an estimated 450,000. Today, most of those left, close to 150,000, are living as internally displaced refugees in Erbil or in precarious conditions in the country’s capital Baghdad.
In his letter Sako also called for a need to “take responsibility” for what is happening in the region, which has been subjected to “looting, devastation, violence and [forced] migration,” affecting “all walks of life.”
The political, social, and human upheaval has also affected the lives of priests, and since he believes the future of the Chaldean community is rooted in the quality of its clerics, Sako wants for Pope Francis’ Holy Year of Mercy to become a starting point in renewing the missionary zeal of this Church, which has an estimated 500,000 members worldwide.
The community’s complicated reality “raises several fundamental questions about our priestly vocation and the impact of our mission today,” Sako wrote.
“Priests have to be a witness of Christ” and live with their people, sharing their hearts “not with words but with example.”
In his preparatory letter, Sako also posed a series of questions priests were to reflect on, such as living this vocation under such unpredictable circumstances, being witnesses to the joy and hope of the Gospel, delivering homilies capable of touching the hearts of parishioners in moments of hardship and the importance of finding time both to pray and to help those in need.
Earlier in the month, Sako had called for Christians in Iraq to fast on Friday 17, in “solidarity” with the Muslim community celebrating the holy month of Ramadan. The initiative called for fasting and praying “for peace and stability” in the region, as a way to promote a “culture of love, fraternity and harmonic co-existence.”