By Lydia O’Kane
On Friday, Pope Francis is set begin an historic journey to Iraq, becoming the first Pope to visit the Middle Eastern country. The three day visit has a packed programme and will include stops in Baghdad, Mosul, Qaraqosh and Erbil. There will also be an interreligious meeting which will take place at Ur, the birthplace of Abraham.
For many, this visit is being viewed as a symbol of hope for a country which has seen thousands of Christians forced to flee their homeland fearing persecution. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICMC) “Iraq has seen the highest number of refugees and fastest rate of people displaced in past years,” while hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled into Iraq compounding an already difficult situation. Statistics show that over a million Iraqis are internally displaced, unable to move back to their communities, while nearly 5 million returning to the country are in need of humanitarian assistance.
Apart from the significant challenges the country faces in its recovery from war and conflict, Iraq has also been impacted by an economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hope and optimism
Despite the current situation, Humanitarian Consultant and former migrant and refugee Maha Ganni feels a real sense of optimism about the visit. “When I read that he [the Pope] was going, it caused a glow in my heart and I can just foresee the mutual excitement and hope throughout the Iraqi Chaldeans, whether in Iraq or they’re outside of Iraq,” she says.
She adds that this Papal journey will definitely restore hope and give the Iraqi people a sense that they are not forgotten “and also open dialogue with the other religions which is what his Holiness has always been about.”
A mission and a blessing
Ms Ganni was born to Iraqi Catholic Chaldean migrants in Kuwait. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August of 1990 she was separated from her family and ended up in Spain, where she began assisting other refugees and led her to working with various international humanitarian organizations.
For Maha Ganni this is her life’s mission; to help other migrants and refugees, adding that she thanks the Lord each day that she has been led on this particular journey and can use her experiences and those of her family to support refugees in need.
“I think I have a special ability to reach out, so whether it’s in a restaurant or walking on the street, it’s not what you can do for me, it’s what I can do for you. I consider myself to be the voice of the refugees, she says.
Fr Ragheed Ganni
Ms Ganni’s family comes from a long line of religious figures in Iraq which include an Archbishop and a Bishop. On Trinity Sunday, June 3 2007 her cousin Fr Ragheed Ganni, was killed along with three subdeacons in front of Mosul's Holy Spirit Chaldean Church where he was parish priest. One of the gunmen shouted at Fr Ganni that he had warned him to close the church and wanted to know why he didn't do it. Ganni replied asking "How can I close the house of God?"
After graduating with a degree in engineering it was thought that the young man would return and marry. But Ms Ganni recounts that Ragheed told his family that his calling was in another direction which would lead him to study for the priesthood.
His cousin recalls that the Chaldean priest’s death had a huge impact on her. “When I got the message he was martyred it was a shock. It really affected us as a family.” She adds that in her work with refugees she had heard many stories, but it was only when tragedy struck at the heart of her own family that it “really hit home”.
“It was devastating when I got the news,” she says. But [Fr Ragheed] he also knew it was his call and his duty” even when people used to say “your life is in danger.”
Fr Ragheed Ganni was declared a Servant of God in 2018 along with his three companions.
Dialogue and inclusion
As the Pope makes this historic visit to Iraq, Ms Ganni says that his outreach is hugely important because he is essentially giving a voice to the voiceless. She also notes that he is someone who speaks about dialogue and inclusion, especially in his most recent encyclical “Fratelli Tutti”.
“I think with the Pope's visit, it's going to give them a little bit of optimism for the future. It’s not going to be an immediate impact; I think it will all depend on the results of his visit; his outreach and his message.”