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Iraqi Christians, decimated by extremist violence, prepare for pope’s visit

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Iraqi Christians are busy scrubbing churches, practising hymns and preparing for mass ahead of the first ever papal visit to the country, a four-day trip next month that is going ahead despite the coronavirus pandemic and security risks.

The minority community of several hundred thousand was decimated first by al Qaeda’s rise in the early 2000s and later by Islamic State, the extremist group that brutally persecuted them and other minority faiths and sects from 2014-2017.

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For many of those who remained, or have returned to Iraq where free worship is again possible, Pope Francis’ visit from March 5-8 is welcome recognition of how they have suffered for their beliefs.

“We hope that after the pope’s visit, the situation of Christians will improve,” said Amer Abdelahad, a Christian in Erbil, as he registered to attend a mass for 10,000 people in the northern city on Sunday, March 7.

“Christians in Iraq suffered a lot over the past years, they are emigrating. The pope will come and see this reality on the ground,” he added, accompanied by his wife and daughter who will also be at the gathering.

The trip by the 84-year-old leader of the world’s Catholics was announced in December, and will take in the capital Baghdad, as well as Ur, a city linked to the Old Testament figure of Abraham, and Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh in the plain of Nineveh.

A twin suicide attack in Baghdad killed at least 32 people in January, a reminder of Iraq’s ongoing security risks despite the defeat of Islamic State and a general reduction in militant violence. The pope condemned the bombing.

Although some of Iraq’s Christians, who include Catholics and Orthodox, have moved back to homes they fled during the upheaval of the last two decades, others foresee further problems and are looking to leave.

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