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In Iraq, pope hopes to encourage Christians, build bridges to Muslims

AMMAN, Jordan — On his historic visit to Iraq in March, Pope Francis hopes to encourage his Christian flock, badly bruised by sectarian conflict and brutal Islamic State attacks, while building further bridges to Muslims by extending fraternal peace.

The first-ever papal visit to the biblical land of Iraq March 5-8 is significant. For years, the pope has expressed his concerns publicly for the plight and persecution of Iraq’s Christians and its mosaic of many religious minorities, including the Yazidis, who have suffered at the hands of Islamic State militants and have been caught in the crosshairs of Sunni and Shiite Muslim violence.

“I am the pastor of people who are suffering,” Pope Francis told Catholic News Service at the Vatican ahead of his visit.

Earlier, the pope said he hoped Iraq could “face the future through the peaceful and shared pursuit of the common good on the part of all elements of society, including the religious, and not fall back into hostilities sparked by the simmering conflicts of the regional powers.”

“The pope will come to say, ‘Enough, enough war, enough violence; seek peace and fraternity and the safeguarding of human dignity,’” said Cardinal Louis Sako, the Baghdad-based patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church. The cardinal reportedly has worked for several years to see the pope’s trip to Iraq come to fruition.

Pope Francis “will bring us two things: comfort and hope, which have been denied to us until now,” the cardinal said.

The majority of Iraq’s Christians belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church. Others worship in the Syriac Catholic Church, while a modest number of belong to the Latin, Maronite, Greek, Coptic and Armenian churches. There are also non-Catholic churches like the Assyrian Church and Protestant denominations.

Once numbering about 1.5 million, hundreds of thousands of Christians fled sectarian violence after Saddam’s ouster as churches in Baghdad were bombed, kidnappings took place, and other sectarian attacks erupted. Now, Christian numbers in Iraq have dwindled to about 150,000.

For years, Cardinal Sako has lobbied the Iraqi government, dominated by majority Shiite Muslim politicians, to treat Christians and other minorities as equal citizens with equal rights.

He also hopes that Pope Francis’ message of peace and fraternity in Iraq will cap the pontiff’s interfaith outreach to the Muslim world in recent years, now by extending a hand to Shiite Muslims.

“When the head of the Church speaks to the Muslim world, we Christians are shown appreciation and respect,” Cardinal Sako said.

A meeting for Pope Francis with one of Shiite Islam’s most authoritative figures, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is significant in the papal effort to embrace all of the Islamic world. The meeting has been confirmed by the Vatican.

Observers believe the pope’s meeting with the ayatollah could be highly symbolic for Iraqis, but especially Christians, for whom the encounter could turn a page in their country’s often fraught interfaith relations.

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