ROME – Father Naim Shoshandy has plenty of reasons to be angry: On March 23, 2014, the terrorist organization known as Islamic State murdered his 27-year-old brother, for no other reason other than the fact that he was a Christian.
Today, he welcomes Pope Francis’s “bravery” in deciding to visit the “martyred nation” of Iraq.
“The country is burning, but he is still going,” the priest told Crux over the phone. “It’s an act of bravery, for him to go to Iraq, the land of Abraham, as an apostle.”
An act of bravery, Shoshandy said, without denying it could also be considered an act of “madness.”
There have been three rockets attacks in the past 10 days in Iraq, including one on the United States embassy in Baghdad, and another at a U.S. base in the airport of Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, the autonomous northern region Pope Francis will also be visiting and using as his base to go to the Nineveh Plain.
Shoshandy is from this plain, specifically Qaraqosh. However, odds are against him being there when the pope visits: After his brother was murdered, he was forced to flee Iraq, and today lives in Albacete, Spain, where he has been the parish priest of the church of Santa Ana since 2016.
Francis will visit Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh on March 7. His March 5-8 trip to Iraq also includes stops in the Plain of Ur — the homeland of the biblical patriarch Abraham — and Najaf, where he will meet with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
The encounter between the pontiff and one of the chief figures of Shi’a Islam will be just another landmark moment during the history-making visit, the first ever by a pope to Iraq.
St. John Paul II tried to go to Iraq in 1999 to kickstart a pilgrimage that took him to the holiest sites of Christianity, but negotiations with the government of Saddam Hussein failed, and the visit never materialized.
“We hope that this visit will open the eyes of many in Iraq, serve as a reminder that we are all siblings,” Shoshandy said.
“And we also hope it will bring something of extreme importance: the hope of religious freedom,” Shoshandy, noting that the pope’s meeting with al-Sistani will be historic.
The Syriac Catholic priest was ordained Sept. 12, 2013 in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh, and he worked as a priest in several Iraqi parishes until he was forced to flee his diocese, threatened by ISIS. The cathedral was destroyed, but with the help of papal charity Aid to the Church in Need, it was rebuilt and is ready for the papal visit, as the pictures shared by the priest on Twitter show:
En Qaraquos la gente espera muy ilusionada la visita del Santo Padre dando los últimos retoques a la recién restaurada catedral de la Inmaculada Concepcion. Lo esperan con los brazos abiertos. D. Naim Shoshandy – Sacertode Iraquí pic.twitter.com/VD4ZLFakAP
— D. Naim Shoshandy ن (@naim75839678) February 22, 2021
He often refers to August 6, 2014, as the day of “evil and cruelty.” The memory of the bombs that covered the city and the image of himself removing the lifeless bodies of his own neighbors from under the rubble after ISIS invaded his city is still fresh in his mind.
Regardless, he has hopes for the pope’s visit: “We are all brothers, as the motto for the visit says. Hopefully, people in Iraq will understand this.”
He wants to go to Iraq for the visit, and is trying to get all his paperwork in order, but he’s afraid he could have problems reentering Spain from Iraq if he were to leave the European Union. He is not giving up, however, and until the very last day he will tell anyone he asks that “he is hoping to be in Iraq when the pope is there.”
If he can’t go, he will still follow the visit from Spain, much like the hundreds of thousands of Christians forced to flee Iraq in a diaspora that began after the U.S. invasion in 2003, but which worsened in 2014, after the rise of ISIS.
Shosandy met with the pope on March 20, 2019, in the Vatican: “My legs were shaking, and I could barely get any words out, but he grabbed my hands and told me to be at ease.”
“I introduced myself as what I am: A priest from Iraq who is also a victim of Daesh [another name for ISIS],” he said. “I told him that I represent the persecuted Christians of my country, and asked him to pray for us. In his eyes I could see the reflection of his compassion with my family’s history, particularly the suffering we’ve gone through since my brother’s murder.”
The pope’s closeness, Shosandy said, is something that will be with him “throughout my life. I thank God for these moments he has gifted me with.”
This will be the pontiff’s first international trip since Nov. 2019, when he visited Japan and Thailand. He had a trip scheduled to Malta last May, but it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the Vatican announced the trip to Iraq last December, it did so with the warning that the international COVID-19 situation would be monitored closely.
Last week Iraq announced a series of restrictions, including the closure all houses of worship, until March 8, the last day of the papal visit, in an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus, with some 3,000 new cases reported daily.
Over 13,295 people having died of COVID-19, in a country with a very compromised health care system due to years of war and violence.
The martyred church of Iraq, Shoshandy said, welcomes the pope’s visit, and it is expected “bring support to a suffering people.”
“From the first day of my priesthood, I have understood the meaning of pain, generally caused by silence, indifference and loneliness, suffered both during the war in Iraq, and also during the war against the coronavirus,” the priest told Crux.
“Iraq is a nation that needs the visit from the Holy Father, but when he lands in Baghdad, he won’t only be visiting Iraq: all of the Christians in the Middle East await this pilgrimage,” he said.
“Everyone is very excited and happy with the visit of His Holiness,” he added. “It is a sacred visit for us, and the only cloud above it is that of the coronavirus, but everything possible is being done to ensure all are safe.”
For instance, even though the stadium where the pope will say Mass in Erbil can comfortably host 20,000 people, only 10,000 will be allowed to attend.
“Christians and all the people of good will in the Middle East have been living for some time in a state of doubt and fear, facing too many problems,” Shoshandy said. “But the pope comes to us to support and encourage us. We all, even those living abroad, look forward to welcoming him.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma