Baghdad (AsiaNews) - For Iraqi Christians, "the Pope's visit is a necessity" because "his solidarity and support" are needed that much more. Having performed a "miracle in Syria, he can perform a miracle here," said His Beatitude Mar Louis Raphael I Sako, as he spoke about his recent visit to the Vatican for the plenary session of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches in the presence of Pope Francis.
At the end of the meeting, the Eastern Patriarchs met the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who assured them that he prayed every day "for Iraq, Syria and the Christians of the East".
Reached by telephone in Baghdad, the Chaldean Patriarch spoke about the hopes of the Iraqi Christian community, the pre-Christmas atmosphere now prevailing in this time of Advent, and especially the deep desire for a papal apostolic trip to the land of Abraham.
Here is what Mar Sako told AsiaNews:
Your Beatitude, what are your thoughts with regards to your recent meetings in the Vatican with Pope Benedict XVI and Francis?
They were both were very emotional, and I was very much moved. We had two very intense hours [working on the plenary] with the Pontiff.
We later met for half an hour with Benedict XVI, a simple person who remains close to our situation. The Pope Emeritus is in good health, clear and lucid. He said that he was like a monk, praying and resting. He told me that he could not come to Iraq due to his advanced age, but that he always prayed for our country.
A Pope in Iraq: what would it mean for the Christian community and the country?
A trip by Pope Francis in Iraq, the first in history by a pope, would be a big, high-impact and extraordinary show of support [for a long persecuted community].
In the past, popes visited Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, but never Iraq. At present, we can create the conditions for a trip because we can expect the government to do everything to ensure his safety. For us Christians of Iraq, his visit is a necessity, because we need his solidarity and support. Since he performed a miracle in Syria [helping to stop a military escalation and an intervention by the international community], he can perform a miracle here.
And how did the Pope respond?
He took note, and carefully followed all the sessions.
Moreover, Pope Francis is appreciated by Muslims and enjoys their respect. . .
Muslims believe that the Pope is very close (even) to them. They appreciate him for his symbolic gestures, his simplicity, for words that come from the heart, that are living and concrete testimony and not just ink on paper. For Muslims, he is a "different" pope, a truly prophetic shepherd. They are the ones telling us Christians. With deeply human gestures, Pope Francis is not only showing a speculative and theological faith, but is bearing a living, concrete witness, even without words.
It has been almost a year since you were elected Chaldean Patriarch in January 2013. How would you describe the Christian community in Iraq today?
The Church in Iraq has room to grow, but it requires working together. For us Iraqi Christians in particular, the example of an apostolic journey in our country would be crucial in this period characterised by an exodus of Christians.
Our presence is threatened and two thousand years of history are in danger. We have become what the Bible calls "small change", but we must endure our trials. This said, we also need the help of the universal Church, which must think about the future.
One day, [in Iraq] we shall realise the goal of true freedom of religion and conscience, but if there are no more Christians who will tell our story? That is our duty. We are the one who have to bear witness to Christian values to Muslims.
This presence is also important for them as well. We are a communion and this communion and closeness is a source of growth and a means to fulfil our responsibility [to the nation] at a Christian, human and political level.
Were these aspects at the centre of your address to the plenary?
Sure! These are precisely the two aspects that are important to me and on which I insisted: how to keep Christians in the Middle East and how to preserve their identity, history, language, faith and traditions.
The Pope is not only the Bishop of Rome; he is the pastor of the universal Catholic Church. He is the symbol of unity and communion. He is for all . . . and we have to understand and support him!
Your Beatitude, this is your first Christmas as a Patriarch of the Chaldeans. How are you dealing with the Advent season?
So far, Christians have not come under pressure. It is true that the security situation remains very fragile. There are attacks and acts of violence of a sectarian and confessional nature [Three bombs exploded in northern Iraq during the funeral of a Sunni leader, killing at least 12 people and wounding more than 40]. But last week, a priest was ordained in Baghdad and in the next few days we shall celebrate six new permanent deacons.
In this time of Advent, they are a symbol of life, of a Church that is growing and thriving. Once upon a time, the capital had 35 parishes, now they are only 20 for want of priests. Some neighbourhoods have problems, but we want to bear witness to the rebirth of the Iraqi Church.
I would like to make one final point. A group of Italian pilgrims is coming to Iraq in the next few days. As part of the celebrations for the Year of Faith, they will make a pilgrimage to Ur, and then visit Baghdad and Basra, where we will celebrate a solemn Mass. The group includes priests and lay people and will bring a relic of the Blessed John Paul II, who during his pontificate had expressed a desire to visit our country.