KAREMLASH, Iraq: Worshippers attend mass at the Chaldean Catholic Church of Mar Addai on Tuesday. – AFP

KAREMLASH, Iraq: Morning mass in Karemlash, an Iraqi village once held by Islamic State militants, is usually a somber affair. But this week, elderly parishioners could rejoice: Pope Francis is coming to Iraq next year. “We’re all so happy. We have been waiting for this for so long,” said 45-year-old Adiba Henna, smiling in the cold air after a prayer service at St Adday Chaldean Church, in the Nineveh highlands of northern Iraq. “Every time he visits a country, we think, why doesn’t he come to Iraq? Aren’t there Christians in Iraq? This is the greatest, most beautiful thing he could do.”

The Vatican announced Monday that the 83-year-old pontiff would make the first-ever papal visit to Iraq in early March. The itinerary consists of trips to Baghdad, the southern city of Ur – where Abraham is said to have been born – and the Christian heartland of Nineveh province. The Nineveh plains were seized by IS in 2014, displacing hundreds of thousands of Christians who feared execution or forced conversion by the extremist fighters.

Christians have slowly started to come back, including to the historic village of Karemlash, 28 km from the city of Mosul, the provincial capital and jihadists’ former stronghold. Half of the village’s roughly 800 families have returned, with others hesitating due to a lack of public services and tensions among state-sponsored armed groups in the surrounding plains. “We hope this visit can prevent demographic change, preserve the identity of our region and prompt the government to seriously start rebuilding our areas,” said St Adday’s priest, Father Thabet Al-Mekko. “We’ve started the countdown. We need to feel closer to the Christian community in the rest of the world.”

‘Unique to Iraq’
Iraq once counted more around 1.5 million Christians, but the community has been ravaged by back-to-back conflicts. Following the US-led invasion in 2003, sectarian warfare prompted diverse Christian sects to flee and IS’ 2014 attacks further hit all minority communities. Now, an estimated 400,000 Christians remain in Iraq. Zuhair Mansour, a 50-year-old school principal in Karemlash, said the pope’s visit could help Iraq heal. “It could be the step in building peace in this wounded country,” he said outside St Adday, which has been mostly renovated after Karemlash was recaptured from IS in 2016.

Pope Francis was formally invited to Iraq in 2019 by President Barham Saleh, but all of the pontiff’s trips were cancelled in June this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. It will be the pope’s first trip abroad since the outbreak hit Italy – and Iraq is the perfect destination, said Louis Sako, patriarch of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church. “Visiting Ur is a visit to Abraham (PBUH), the father of all believers. It is a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage to an Abrahamic family that should draw people together, not tear them apart,” said Sako. “This is unique to Iraq – the Pope can’t do this anywhere else.”

‘A Christmas gift’
Although much of Iraq is no longer experiencing active conflict, thousands have died from the coronavirus and the worst economic crisis in decades will see poverty rates double this year. “It’s an exceptional time for Iraq. And in a time like this, a father needs to be with his children – so that’s where this father will be,” Sako told AFP in Baghdad. Families are also still grieving the deaths of nearly 600 Iraqis who died in protest-related violence since an unprecedented youth-led movement erupted in Iraq’s capital and across the south in October 2019.

At a mass last year, Pope Francis said he was “saddened” by the “harsh” crackdown on demonstrators. The Pope’s visit could help turn the page. “As Iraqis, as Middle Easterners, we need to hear a voice other than the sound of gunshots,” Sako said. Martin Banni, the 29-year-old priest who heads the parish at the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in Baghdad, said he hoped the papal trip would spur real change for Christians.

“We hope it won’t just be a media visit, and that it has an impact on our leaders,” said Banni, who hails from Karemlash but fled IS in 2014. His church is modest and still doesn’t feature Christmas decorations, but Banni said that could change now. “The news of the Pope’s visit is a great, wonderful Christmas gift,” he said. “We will celebrate the coming of Christ on December 25th, and the coming of the Pope in March.” – AFP