NEW YORK – From his experience in Iraq in 2018, Monsignor Kieran Harrington doesn’t look at one stop, or moment, from Pope Francis’s trip to Iraq as most significant. Rather, it’s the fact that the pontiff was there in the first place.
“The fundamental problem for so many Christians in Iraq is they’re alone. That’s why the pope’s visit was so important because, with the pope’s presence, they knew they were not alone. That, in their suffering, they were not by themselves,” Msgr. Harrington, the ecclesiastical assistant for Aid to the Church in Need, told Currents News on Monday.
Harrington, who is also the vicar for communications for the Diocese of Brooklyn, visited Erbil, Telskuf, Qaraqosh, and Ankawa on sabbatical in 2018. At that time, the Islamic State was gone, and the rebuilding process had begun.
One thing he remembers from the trip was the joy of Iraqi Christians despite all they had endured. He remembers events like First Communion ceremonies and large parish gatherings in the Iraqi countryside rife with prayer and comradery.
Harrington notes, however, that despite the joy of the people, “the trauma of war doesn’t go away.” That many people would still like to leave Iraq but can’t because of the risk and length of time it will take them to find a new life in another country.
For that reason, he said it was important for Iraqi Christians to hear Pope Francis’s encouragement that their decision to stay was a noble one, whether it was their choice or not.
“People have to be empowered, reminded that what they are doing even when they don’t have the ability to make decisions, they have to know that them staying is a heroic decision,” Msgr. Harrington said. “Maybe it’s not so much a choice, but they need to perceive it as a choice, or else life becomes unbearable.”
Harrington also views Pope Francis’s meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top cleric in Shia Islam, as an important symbol. It’s an opportunity where Christians can be a “bridge-builder” between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that are still in conflict.
“When [Iraqi Christians] choose against hate and choose the path of love, this then becomes a remarkable witness to the rest of the world,” he told Currents News. “I think this is what the Holy Father has been encouraging Christians to do in that part of the world.”
As for ways Christians living in first world countries like the United States can help Iraqi Christians, Harrington said prayer is the first thing they would ask for. After prayer, he suggests financial contributions to help them continue to rebuild and provide necessary social services. And lastly, advocacy on their behalf.
In a statement Monday, March 8, President Joe Biden called Pope Francis’ trip “a symbol of hope for the entire world.” One that “sent an important message, as Pope Francis said himself, that ‘fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than death, that peace more powerful than war.’”
In response to the comments, Harrington recalled the phrase “you break it, you own it,” said by Colin Powell, the former Secretary of State under President George W. Bush. His point was that when the United States toppled Saddam Hussein, regardless of how evil he was, the relative peace and tranquility he provided for Christians communities went down with him.
“Regardless of the merits of whether we should have been there or not, we own their suffering and that requires us to do everything in our power to ease the suffering of those who are there,” Harrington said.
“I think the most important thing in easing someone’s suffering is you’re not alone. You can accompany in suffering. What I think the United States cannot do is abandon the people of Iraq.”
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