Iraqi Christians await pope's visit: “We will be united in prayer on our land, full of martyrs”

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When ISIS invaded Mosul in 2014, Iraqi Christians were given an ultimatum: convert to Islam, pay a tax or be exiled.

Fr. Steven Azabo, whose parish and hometown in the diocese of Alqosh were destroyed, recalls many Christians' difficult decision to leave everything behind rather than give up their Christian identity.

“So we became foreigners, refugees, in our own country—no homes, no churches, nothing. That's what we did, and we were happy to choose the most essential thing for our lives. We chose our God above everything else.”

In a land plagued by war, persecution and death, Pope Francis' visit, scheduled for March 2021, is a beacon of hope for peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims. Fr. Steven says the pope intends to visit the Syrian Catholic cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, which in 2010, saw the tragic slaughter of Christians in the middle of Mass.

“They killed everyone: women, children, even two priests, good friends of mine. We had been together in Baghdad. That's why I think the pope wants to visit this place. I hope that when he prays there, we will be united in prayer with our pope, because our land is a land full of martyrs.”

Pope Francis has been following the situation attentively for years, and his desire to visit Iraq is nothing new.

“He's always followed the news, he's been informed, he's seen some pictures, but this time, it will be different because he will be among us. He'll be able to hear and to see for himself. He'll be able to speak with the Christian people in Iraq. He'll get a better understanding of what Christian persecution really means in a land in the Middle East, at the heart of the Middle East.”

After years as exiles in their own country, Fr. Steven says Iraqi Christians are excitedly preparing for the opportunity to pray together with the pope, this time not from outside Iraq, but from within the borders of their own home.

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