Vatican City, Feb 28, 2022 / 07:20 am (CNA).
In a meeting with Iraqi Christian leaders at the Vatican on Monday, Pope Francis recalled his historic trip to Iraq made a year ago this March.
“I wish to say with you once again that it is not possible to imagine Iraq without Christians. This conviction is based not only on a religious foundation, but on social and cultural evidence,” he said on Feb. 28.
Francis became the first pope to visit Iraq when he embarked on his journey to encourage the country’s embattled Christian minority and foster interreligious fraternity.
He traveled 900 miles within Iraq, meeting with Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and speaking to political leaders and Christian communities.
At the Feb. 28 meeting, Pope Francis reassured representatives of the Christian Churches in Iraq that he is still close to them and their people.
“Dear Brothers in Christ, know that you are in my heart and in the prayers of so many people. Do not be discouraged: while so many, at various levels, threaten peace, we do not look away from Jesus, the Prince of Peace, and we do not tire of invoking his Spirit, the creator of unity,” he said.
The Christian population in Iraq, a country of around 40 million people, has been steadily dwindling for decades, from around 1.4 million in 2003 to about 250,000 today.
Underlining the importance of a Christian presence in Iraq, Pope Francis said that everything must be done to ensure that Christians continue to feel that Iraq is their home, that they are full citizens, and that they have something to contribute.
“Iraq without Christians would no longer be Iraq, because Christians, together with other believers, contribute strongly to the specific identity of the country: a place where coexistence, tolerance, and mutual acceptance have flourished since the earliest centuries; a place that has the vocation to show, in the Middle East and in the world, the peaceful coexistence of differences,” he said.
The pope added that “you Christians of Iraq, who since apostolic times have lived side by side with other religions, have, today especially, another indispensable vocation: to commit yourselves so that religions may be at the service of fraternity.”
“You know well that interreligious dialogue is not a matter of mere courtesy,” he continued. “No, it goes beyond that. It is not a matter of negotiation or diplomacy. No, it goes beyond that. It is a path of brotherhood leading to peace, a path which is often difficult but which, especially in these times, God asks for and blesses.”
“It is a path that needs patience and understanding. But it makes us grow as Christians, because it requires an open heart and a commitment to be, concretely, peacemakers,” he said.