Kirkuk (AsiaNews) - There will be no Iraqi young people in Sydney: none of those who had planned the trip have received visas for Australia. Although he does not conceal his "profound disappointment" over the refusal of visas, Louis Sako, archbishop of Kirkuk, is not losing heart. "In conjunction with World Youth Day, we have organised a gathering that will be attended by more than 5,000 young people", from the dioceses of northern Iraq, to "pray together with the pope". The Chaldean prelate emphasises the "historic" significance of the event, which he does not hesitate to describe as "a miracle" in a situation still marked today by conflicts and violence. Archbishop Sako stresses that "the real challenge is to rebuild Iraq", preserving the "Christian tradition, which constitutes a fundamental part of Iraqi culture". Despite its suffering and difficulties, this community intends "to remain alive and to collaborate with the Muslim community, in order to bring stable and lasting peace".
Here is the interview granted to AsiaNews by Archbishop Louis Sako:
Your Excellency, what is the mood of the Iraqi young people who have been denied visas to participate in WYD?
It's natural to feel disappointed, but suffering always brings a sign of hope: on the occasion of World Youth Day, we have organised a gathering that will be attended by more than 5,000 young people from the northern dioceses of the country, including Kirkuk, Amadiyah, Erbil. This is an historic event, because it highlights the desire of the young people to testify to their faith, in spite of the difficulties and sufferings that they face; the Christian community is alive, and the witness offered by the young people is the result of a true miracle.
What events have you organised for the gathering?
On July 17 and 18 there will be moments of prayer, of catechesis, of reflection, intended to testify to the Iraqi Christian community's closeness to the young people and to the pope. He has always demonstrated special concern for our situation, and even if we cannot be physically close to them, our spirits and our hearts are in Sydney. Of course, it is a shame to miss a unique opportunity to encounter other realities, other cultures and other experiences that are united by faith in Christ, but it is just as important and significant to demonstrate that the local Church is alive, that it intends to work to promote peace and development. For this reason, we wanted to send a message to Pope Benedict XVI and to the young people who will participate in WYD, to state emphatically that we are there, in their midst.
Are there signs of hope for the country?
The situation is still very difficult, especially in certain areas of Iraq, but we have not lost the desire to work to build peace, testifying at the same time to our faith. Closeness to the pope is an important sign not only for the Christian community, but for all of Iraq and for our Muslim brothers.
Are vocations developing among Iraqi Christians?
This is an essential point for keeping the Christian community alive. Today there is a lack of priests and sisters, but above all of personnel with specific formation in doctrine and pastoral activity. In the past, we have seen significant emigration from the country because of violence, kidnappings, killings, but the real challenge is that of remaining here to work on behalf of our land and our people. There are modest signs of hope: today in the cathedral we organised a meeting with 300 young people between the ages of 7 and 16, who gave a strong demonstration of their desire for peace and security. They are asking to be able to live their faith freely, and a small group - 7 out of a class of 25 - have also said that they want to consecrate their lives to Christ, because they see religious men and women as real witnesses of the faith, as models to be followed.
What are the greatest difficulties for those who leave the country?
There is an evident problem of integration with Western culture, which is increasingly fragmented and secularised. It is true, we lack security and we face danger; but there is also a profound sense of unity, of communion, family is still the pillar of society. For this reason, I invite Christians not to leave the country, because the difficulties that they face abroad, lured by the mirage of security and well-being, can be even greater. The real challenge is to remain here and contribute to the rebirth of Iraq. (DS)