Among the many thousands at Lebanon’s presidential palace Saturday to greet Pope Benedict XVI were more than 220 Chaldean Christians, who travelled from across war-battered Iraq for the historic occasion.
“The pope’s visit to Lebanon is a blessing for the whole Middle East,” said Shammas Selim from Ankawa in the north Iraqi province of Arbil. “It serves as a reminder for us Iraqi Christians that there is still hope.”
Iraq’s Chaldeans belong to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. But along with other Iraqi Christians, they suffered persecution, forced flight and killings in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion.
Before 2003 there were more than a million Christians living in Iraq. Now they number around 450,000.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, many thousands fled after 44 worshippers and two priests were killed in an attack on a Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad on October 31, 2010, an atrocity claimed by Al-Qaeda.
From 2003 to May 2012, some 900 Christians were killed, while 200 were kidnapped, tortured and ultimately released for exorbitant ransoms, according to the Hammurabi Human Rights Organisation in Iraq.
“The situation is a little better for us now, because we live in (Kurdish) Arbil,” Father Jamal Zako told AFP. Many Christians fled their homes in other parts of the country for the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan.
“In general, Iraq’s Christians have suffered deeply, and we need to remain faithful to God and our religion in order to make the country better,” he said.
Both Zako and Selim said the key to restoring peace to Iraq was “forgiveness and coexistence. We need to listen to what God is really trying to tell us about peace and honesty, regardless of what religion we belong to.”
Battered by war and occupation for almost 10 years, and ruthless dictatorship for decades before that, Iraq’s multi-confessional fabric has been badly damaged by violence.
But the Iraqis who travelled to Lebanon this weekend believe there is still hope for their nation.
“All humans — even criminals — are made in the image of God,” said Zako.
“We need to remain faithful to the message of Christianity, and we will make it through,” said 44-year-old Shouan, also from Arbil.
“Despite our people’s suffering and exile, we are still one of Iraq’s most important communities,” he said, noting that a plethora of minorities has long lived side by side with Muslims, but that years of war and terror have driven deep rifts between religious groups.
“Like Christ himself, we need to learn to suffer and remain faithful despite any pain,” said Shouan. “We should not give up on our message, now more than ever.”
Asked how significant Pope Benedict XVI’s visit was to them, Shouan said: “The pope is the symbol of Christ on earth, he is a man of peace and we need his message.”
Waving an olive branch, 40-year-old Jihan said the pope should also visit Iraq, not just Lebanon. “We need peace in Iraq just as much as the Lebanese do,” she said.
On the roadsides leading up to the hilltop presidential palace in Baabda, many thousands of people stood patiently, only to explode into joy when the pope’s convoy drove past.
“Long live the pope! Long live the pope!” the Iraqis cried when they saw Benedict XVI. “Hallelujah!”
White and yellow confetti fluttered in the air as the papal convoy drove past, and one olive branch-bearing Iraqi woman shed tears when she saw the pontiff.
“We want peace, we want to live in safety,” said Shrier Hanna, who is in her mid-forties. “Today I feel we should never lose hope, despite all that has happened, God willing, the Iraqis will live in peace again one day.”