Baghdad (AsiaNews) – Chaldean Patriarch Raphael Mar Louis Sako celebrated Christmas as a moment of "peace and mercy," a feast filled with "prayer and inner calm" among the faithful, who crowded the churches of Baghdad in services full of "so much faith and hope."
Speaking to AsiaNews, the prelate described how Christians in the Iraqi capital experienced – in many cases shared with Muslims – the festive season.
Jesus’ birth and the start of the Jubilee Year provided an opportunity to meet, exchange and show solidarity because "through acts of mercy contacts are created, ties established, solidarity shown, and a desire to meet others nurtured.” This builds “bridges between communities despite many difficulties and walls.”
In Baghdad, the Chaldean Church is divided into 30 parishes with an additional 35 churches affiliated to the community led by Mar Sako, who celebrated Christmas Mass "in seven different churches”.
Places of worship were packed "with people with so much faith and so much hope," he said. Indeed, hopefully, "2016 will be a year of peace, despite the tensions”.
For the prelate, "People have peace in their heart, praying fervently to see it spread quickly cross the country."
Christians are not alone in feeling this way. “Many Muslim families who participated in the Mass of midnight feel the same way,” he added.
“Many ordinary people brought flowers and exchanged greetings;” simple, ordinary people, not government or clerical authorities, noted the Chaldean Patriarch, who refused cards and gifts from "religious and political leaders" because of the many unsolved problems that continue to afflict Christians and Iraq.
In his pastoral letter to the faithful, which was issued on the eve of the holiday, Mar Sako slammed once more the many ills that affect society, especially some that touch Christians. These include the Islamic State group that forced people to flee Mosul and the Nineveh Plains in the summer of 2014, criminal and extremist groups who racketeer and steal from families, the Islamisation of children and the rejection from some Muslims.
"We expect real and tangible change in Iraq, a new culture, not only formal speeches and statements,” the patriarch said.
At a time of celebration, the Chaldean Church and the Christian community promoted many initiatives in support of the poor, the marginalised and those in need, without distinction of faith or ethnicity.
"In order to breathe life into the Christmas message, we helped 2,000 Christian, Muslim and Yazidi families in Baghdad, giving them some money to meet their daily needs. This is one way to show with facts that we are brothers."
In Kirkuk, the Chaldean Church is helping 385 students from displaced families, "mostly Christians, but some Muslims and Yazidis too."
The Patriarchate provides some funding for "housing, rents houses, offers some food and small items, to help them continue their education."
"The celebration on 24 December in a refugee camp in Baghdad, which houses 130 families in Mosul and 40 university students” is another act of mercy, His Beatitude said.
“I offered dinner and some money as well as opened the Holy Door in a camp tent. I gave sweets to children that Card Fernando Filoni* had sent to me as a token of the Holy See’s solidarity."
"Through our actual acts of mercy contacts are created, ties established, solidarity shown, and a desire to meet others nurtured,” said the head of the Church in Iraq.
In some cases, this has become "a tangible sign of hope, a response to the logic of war and revenge, and to the lack of compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation – evils that have afflicted Iraq for far too long, overwhelming it with violence and terror. However desirable, reconciliation is still very far away."
Lastly, the Chaldean Patriarch mentioned an episode related to Christmas events that filled him with joy and satisfaction.
"On the evening of 31 December, we walked along some Baghdad streets (pictured), without escort or security detail. We wanted to send a message, to show that we Christians are here, with everyone, for everyone. On this occasion, four million people, mostly Muslims, came out into the streets to celebrate the New Year.
“I met women, children, soldiers, people who came from Basra and Najaf to celebrate the New Year of the 'birth of Jesus',” he explained.
“In an interview on a popular TV show, I spoke out against a closed and fundamentalist Islam, calling for its renewal and greater openness,” Mar Sako said. “Many thanked me, especially Muslims." (DS)
* Card Fernando Filoni is the prefect of Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples (Propaganda Fide)