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    Healing in a Land of Martyrs

    Pope Francis visits war-torn Iraq in unprecedented apostolic journey

    By Cecilia Hadley 4/1/2021
    The flag of Iraqi Kurdistan is seen as Pope Francis greets the crowd before celebrating Mass at Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil. The Knights of Columbus financially supported the Mass, which took place March 7, at the conclusion of the pope’s historic trip to Iraq. CNS photo/Paul Haring


    Pope Francis brought a message of peace and hope to the long-suffering people of Iraq, particularly its persecuted Christian communities, during his historic trip there March 5-8. The apostolic journey — the first ever by a pope to Iraq — received financial support from the Knights of Columbus as part of the Order’s ongoing work for the Church in the Middle East.

    On March 5, Pope Francis visited Baghdad’s Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, where 48 people were martyred during a 2010 terrorist attack. There, the pope met with bishops, priests, religious and others, and urged them to remain steadfast in their joyful proclamation of the Gospel.

    “May your witness, matured through adversity and strengthened by the blood of martyrs, be a shining light in Iraq and beyond, in order to proclaim the greatness of the Lord,” he said.

    The next day, the Holy Father visited the Chaldean Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph, also in Baghdad, where he celebrated Mass for the first time in the rite of the Chaldean Church.

    Pope Francis also met with civic authorities and leaders representing various religions, speaking repeatedly about the need for fraternity among peoples and praying for the victims of violence.

    “In today’s world, which often forgets or presents distorted images of the Most High, believers are called to bear witness to his goodness, to show his paternity through our fraternity,” the pope said March 6, addressing Muslim, Yazidi and other religious leaders at the ancient site of Ur, believed to be the birthplace of Abraham.

    Pope Francis then traveled north to the Nineveh Plains region, which in 2014 was seized by Islamic State militants, forcing some 120,000 Christians to flee for their lives. His first stop on March 7 was to the city of Mosul, where he offered a prayer amid the rubble of four Christian churches destroyed by ISIS.

    The pope then visited nearby Qaraqosh, home to one of Iraq’s largest Christian populations, where cheering crowds lined the city’s streets. He spoke at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, a Syriac church that was desecrated by ISIS and restored with assistance from the Knights of Columbus.

    The Order also contributed $100,000 for the finale of the papal visit — a Mass that gathered 10,000 people to Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, on Sunday evening, March 7. Erbil remains home to thousands of the Christians displaced from the Nineveh Plains, and many projects of the Chaldean archdiocese there have received support from the Knights in recent years.

    “Support of persecuted minorities in the Middle East has been a major initiative of the Knights of Columbus since 2014,” Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly explained. “We are proud to support the Holy Father’s outreach to the people of Iraq, and I urge Catholics everywhere to continue to pray in solidarity with our suffering brothers and sisters there and throughout the world.”

    In his homily during the culminating Mass in Erbil, Pope Francis thanked those gathered for their shining witness of faith, mercy and solidarity with the poor and suffering.

    “Today, I can see firsthand that the Church in Iraq is alive,” he said, “that Christ is alive and at work in this, his holy and faithful people!”


    CECILIA HADLEY is senior editor of Columbia.



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