By Anne Preckel
In June 2019, Pope Francis had expressed his willingness to travel to Iraq at an audience for representatives of aid agencies for the Middle East and the Eastern Churches (ROACO). In doing so, Pope Francis expressed hopes that Iraq "can 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 work of Christians in Iraq is characterized by focusing on the common good of all components of Iraqi society. Regina Lynch works in this area as Director of Projects for Aid to the Church in Need International and is travelling to Iraq with Pope Francis as ROACO representative. She hopes the Pope's visit will give the Iraqi government momentum in strengthening security, infrastructure and jobs for this decimated religious minority.
After the reconstruction of destroyed homes, a new phase of aid work is underway, in addition to the renovation of church structures, concerning assistance with helping the faithful remain in Iraq or return to the country. Around the time of the papal journey to Iraq, the worldwide papal relief organization started a new project to support young Christians. In the next four years, scholarships for 150 students from the Catholic University in Erbil (CUE), the capital of the autonomous region of Kurdistan, will receive financial coverage.
What will be the highlights coming up in the papal journey to Iraq?
A: I think there will be many highlights. The Holy Father is going to meet political representatives, leaders of other religions of other faiths, representatives of the Christian churches, and the people. I personally feel for the ordinary Iraqi Christian. This must be such a fantastic moment of hope and consolation after everything they have suffered.
Q: Pope Francis wants to encourage the Christians in Iraq in a very concrete way with his presence there. What kind of Christian Community does he currently find in Iraq, and what does the Christian Community need most at the moment?
A: I think of course he will find a Christian community that has gotten smaller due to the different wars and especially after 2014 when they fled their villages with the arrival of Isis, but I think he will find those who stay now are people ready to work for the future of their community and who would strive for reconciliation and for tolerance. It is not easy perhaps after everything that they have experienced. I think it was Cardinal Parolin who said before that they can be artisans of peace in a country that is still very much in turmoil. To do that, they do not have to be numerically very strong, but I think if they are strong and their faith, then this is something they can really achieve.
Q: To what extent can the Pope’s visit be a signal for the displaced, perhaps for persuading them to stay or to return?
A: I think what would need to happen for the people to return or those who are in Kurdistan and other areas to go back to their villages is that there needs to be more job creation and better security. I think on the front of job creation that Pope Francis by his journey and his presence can draw attention to Western governments and encourage them to invest more in the development of the region for the Christians, so they have more jobs. I think on the question of security I would hope that this is something the Iraqi government would become more aware of through the Holy Father's visit because in the Iraqi part of the north there still is insecurity. And another important point that Cardinal Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Church, has mentioned often is that Iraqi Christians need to have full citizenship, they need to be the same as their other brothers and sisters of Iraq. I have met Iraqis numbers of times on visits who have said to me "but we are Iraqis," and so those, I think are really important points and important questions in order for the Christians to stay and perhaps for some to come back.
Q: You are greatly involved in helping Christians in Iraq. To what extent can the Pope's visit give a further push to this aid work?
A: I think the Holy Father's visit is great because suddenly everybody is looking at Iraq and the situation of the Christians and other minorities. I would hope that those governments which have not yet invested greatly in the development of the north of Iraq, the regions and especially the Christian villages, that this would be a signal or an encouragement to those governments to do that now. There are still very many agencies involved in development work in the North and I think of many of my colleagues from the ROACA, the different agencies and like Misereor, Missio, the Archdiocese of Cologne, but also the Malteser International who are doing a lot and doing a great job, but there is a long way to go and I think this is where Western governments could give a signal and do something more.