Pope Francis: Iraqi Christians Are ‘Martyr-Church,’ ‘Tortured People’

Iraqi Christians, who fled the violence in the northern city of Mosul after Islamic State (IS) group militants took control of the area, attend a weekly prayer at the Ashti camp in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on March 4, 2016.
SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty

ROME — Pope Francis said Wednesday the Iraqi people have been carrying a “huge cross” for years, suffering ongoing “violence, persecution, and exile.”

In his first General Audience in the Vatican following his historic three-day trip to Iraq, the pope said his heart was full of gratitude to God for the privilege of visiting the land of the biblical patriarch Abraham, revered by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

“Never before has a pope been in the land of Abraham,” the pontiff said. “Providence willed that this should happen now, as a sign of hope, after years of war and terrorism, and during a severe pandemic.”

In the face of so much suffering, the pope declared he felt a deep “penitential” dimension to the trip that required him to join the Iraqi people in their sorrow.

“I strongly felt a penitential sense regarding this pilgrimage: I could not draw near to that tortured people, to that martyr-Church, without taking upon myself, in the name of the Catholic Church, the cross they have been carrying for years; a huge cross, like the one placed at the entrance of Qaraqosh,” he said.

“I felt it particularly seeing the wounds still open from the destruction, and even more so when meeting and hearing the testimony of those who survived the violence, persecution, exile,” the pope said.

“The ISIS occupation caused thousands and thousands of inhabitants to flee, among them many Christians of a variety of confessions and other persecuted minorities, especially the Yazidi,” he said. “The ancient identity of these cities has been ruined. Now they are trying hard to rebuild.”

On the first day of his apostolic visit the pope met with Christians in the Syriac-Catholic Cathedral of Baghdad, where forty-eight people, among them two priests, were killed during Mass in 2010.

“The Church in Iraq is a martyr-Church,” the pope reflected Wednesday in recalling that meeting. “And in that church that bears an inscription in stone the memory of those martyrs, joy resounded in that encounter.”

“Let us continue to pray for them, our sorely tried brothers and sisters, so they might have the strength to start over,” Francis said. “And thinking of the many Iraqis who have emigrated, I want to say to them: you have left everything, like Abraham; like him, keep the faith and hope.”

“Be weavers of friendship and of fraternity wherever you are. And if you can, return,” he said.

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