By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
The Holy Father is visiting a country of approximately 39.3 million people with over half its population made up of young people under 25 years of age. Many of them hope that the papal visit will bring with it, a ray of hope for a brighter future in a country that has been ravaged by violence and wars.
As the visit kicks off, Dahlia Khay Azeez spoke to Antonella Palermo of Vatican News, about the joyful anticipation of the Iraqi people, especially the youth, who receive the Pope in their country in spite of restrictions caused by the ongoing pandemic.
Dahlia is from Baghdad. She holds degrees in computer science and theological studies. She also has a licentiate from the University of KuLeuven, Belgium, and is on her fourth year of studies for her doctorate degree from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. Currently, she is in her hometown where she has been staying close to family amid the Covid-19 health emergency.
Preparations for the Pope’s visit
Dahlia said that final preparations for Pope Francis’ arrival in the country are in full swing as several commissions created for that purpose, are hard at work. These commissions, set up by Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, the Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, are working in collaboration with Iraqi authorities to prepare the ground in each of the cities that the Pope will visit during his four-day Apostolic journey.
She, however, laments that the restrictions imposed on the population to curb the spread of the Covid-19 virus, will not permit the people “to do all the things we wanted to do for him.” Nonetheless, she notes that many people will follow the events via television and other means available.
“At least, we will have the Pope, the symbol of peace in our country and I hope that it will be a good visit that will bring good fruit for the future of the country,” Dahlia said.
Pope Francis expected by all
Dahlia highlights that the Pope is not only expected by Christian communities alone but also by Iraqis of other religions. She notes that most of the people she has spoken to are elated about the Pope’s presence in the country.
“Many Muslims want to invite him to their houses,” she said. “They are happy to see him because Iraq is a country that really loves life and loves people who love peace.”
She further explains that Iraq is famous for its hospitality - a trait that it inherited from Abraham in the Bible – and the country is ready to receive this “very important special guest.”
A hopeful people in spite of years of war
Recent decades in Iraq have been marked by years of war and persecution during which thousands lost their lives and hundreds of thousands others fled for their lives into other countries. From 1 – 1.4 million in 2003, the Iraqi Christian population has drastically dwindled to a current 300 to 400,000 people.
Dahlia remembers being a child during the Gulf war in 1991. She recalls her mother asking her to pray for peace in the country amid a backdrop of weaponry and explosions.
“I think since that time I kept praying for peace. And when you have hope in your heart that this country one day will really live in peace and everything will be okay, I hope it will happen,” she says: “It is this hope that really gave me the strength to continue and to stay always positive.”
She notes that contrary to what is sometimes portrayed by the media, “Iraqis are a positive people” and even though they are sad because of the wars, they remain hopeful.
“There is always hope in our heart that one day, this country will pass over all these difficulties and will arrive on the shores of peace.”