BAGHDAD — On a recent Sunday in Baghdad, a congregation of Chaldean Catholics gather — masked and distanced — to attend Mass at the Church of the Holy Family. Some are from the capital, others fled the north of the country when ISIS seized swaths of territory nearly seven years ago.
“They announced it in the churches — leave, quickly, ISIS is coming,” says Nadera Butrus Tobya, 62, at church with her little grandson. She had been at a gathering before her daughter’s wedding near the Iraqi city of Mosul. The family piled into cars and fled the extremists and she has been in Baghdad ever since.
“Christians are persecuted,” she says. But her face brightens when she speaks of Pope Francis, who plans to visit Iraq next month.
“When we heard that we would see the pope,” she says, “it was as if the world was reborn. Praise God.” Even if she only sees him on television, she will be happy. “He is a brave man to come under such circumstances.”
If the visit goes ahead — despite a large increase in daily new coronavirus cases and security concerns, including a recent rocket attack on U.S. forces — it will be the first ever papal trip to Iraq.
Pope Francis is due to arrive in Baghdad on March 5, where he will be welcomed at the Presidential Palace, and later meet Christian leaders. He will visit Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the influential leader of Iraq’s Shiite Muslims, in Najaf and attend an interreligious meeting in Ur. He will also visit the north of the country, celebrating Mass in Irbil and saying prayers in Mosul, before departing March 8.
It is difficult to know the exact number of Christians still living in Iraq, because there has not been a full census since 1987, says William Warda, who works with the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization, which campaigns on behalf of minorities. Warda is a member of Iraq’s Assyrian Christian community.