Fr Billy Swan
Dear friends. Yesterday, Friday 5th March, I called one of my priest friends with whom I studied in Rome. He is from Iraq and ministers in the old city of Erbil to a few hundred Christians. Some of them are native but many others are refugees who have fled the violent persecution of Christians by Islamic terrorists in 2014 or thereafter. My friend was in great spirits as Pope Francis had just arrived Baghdad as part of a four day Apostolic visit to that part of the world where Abraham first heard the call from God to trust in him and to leave his homeland. For all three faiths – Islam, Judaism and Christianity, Abraham is a fundamental figure of faith in the living God. Today, 6th March, Pope Francis spoke the following words in relation to Abraham and called for unity and peace among all three religions, based on a common destination of unity with God and a shared fraternity as we walk on the journey together:
‘Dear brothers and sisters,
This blessed place brings us back to our origins, to the sources of God's work, to the birth of our religions. Here, where Abraham our father lived, we seem to have returned home. It was here that Abraham heard God's call; it was from here that he set out on a journey that would change history. We are the fruits of that call and that journey. God asked Abraham to raise his eyes to heaven and to count its stars (cf. Jan 15:5). In those stars, he saw the promise of his descendants; he saw us. Today we, Jews, Christians and Muslims, together with our brothers and sisters of other religions, honour our father Abraham by doing as he did: we look up to heaven and we journey on earth’.
My priest friend in Iraq told me how much this visit meant to him and his community. He told me how ‘this visit gives us so much courage and hope’. I’m confident that that same courage and hope was first given to Pope Francis by the example and witness of Iraq Christians over these last number of very difficult years. For these people, the fact that the Holy Father would take this risk in coming to meet them and be with them, speaks volumes about his solidarity with persecuted Christians all over the world. He is the first pope in history to visit this part of the ancient world. He does so at a time of global pandemic and as a man of advanced age, which makes the significance of this visit all the more important.
One of the organisations supporting the Christians of Iraq is ‘Aid to the Church in Need (ACN)’. In 2020, CAN provided nearly 35 million in urgent aid supporting at least 11,800 displaced Christian families who fled from ISIS when the they seized power in Iraq’s Nineveh plains in 2014. This funding has helped local initiatives and has helped to rebuild Churches destroyed by ISIS at that time. A portion of this funding came from Ireland, a fact we can be proud of. By supporting ‘Aid to the Church in Need’ we are recognizing that many Christians do not enjoy the religious freedoms we take for granted and how we need to be united with those brothers and sisters whose only crime is their faith in the Lord Jesus. I will leave the final words of this piece to Pope Francis himself who today outlined a common vision of how Muslims, Christians and Jews can co-exist and live in peace:
‘It was precisely through hospitality, a distinctive feature of these lands, that Abraham was visited by God and given the gift of a son, when it seemed that all hope was past (cf. Gen. 18:1-10). Brothers and sisters of different religions, here we find ourselves at home, and from here, together, we wish to commit ourselves to fulfilling God's dream that the human family may become hospitable and welcoming to all his children; that looking up to the same heaven, it will journey in peace on the same earth’.