The 70,000 or so Chaldean Catholic Iraqis who live in the San Diego region will be paying close attention in March to what happens thousands of miles away in their native land.
Pope Francis plans to embark on the first-ever papal visit to Iraq March 5 to 8 in a spiritual pilgrimage of sorts to the place known in Arabic as the “land of the two rivers” – the mighty Tigris and Euphrates – and once renowned as Mesopotamia, the “cradle of civilization.
“The pope’s visit will give a moral boost to the Christians in Iraq,” said Deacon Keith Esshaki, who serves in the Chaldean Catholic community centered around El Cajon.
The historically rich country is full of religious sites important to understanding the antecedents of the Christian faith, making the visit significant for Pope Francis.
Old Testament patriarch Abraham is recognized as the father of faith in one God by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike and was born in the southern town of Ur. Around 2000 B.C., Ur was a bustling center until its conquest by Alexander the Great a few centuries before Christ. Pope Francis will participate in an interreligious meeting there.
He will travel to Nafaq for a key encounter with one of Shiite Islam’s most authoritative figures, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, as part of his efforts to embrace all of the Islamic world.
Flying into Baghdad from Rome, Pope Francis will be received in an official welcome ceremony at the presidential palace. At the capital’s Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Deliverance, he will meet bishops, priests, men and women religious, seminarians and catechists. The cathedral was the site of a 2010 massacre that killed 58 people and was claimed by Iraq’s al-Qaida group, which splintered into the so-called Islamic State.
Mass is scheduled at the Chaldean Catholic St. Joseph Cathedral, also in Baghdad, a city with a rich, storied history where some 8 million inhabitants now live.
Heading north, Pope Francis will meet the Christian communities of Ninevah Plain. It’s the historic Christian heartland of Iraq, where Christians have lived since St. Thomas brought the Gospel message there around A.D. 35, aided by St. Jude. The pair were thought to base themselves in the northern city of Irbil.
And it is in that city where Pope Francis will be welcomed by religious and civil leaders. Irbil and the nearby Christian enclave of Ankawa have hosted thousands of Christians and other religious minorities forced to escape Islamic State atrocities.
See a video of Deacon Keith Esshaki, from San Diego’s Chaldean Community, and other immigrants at sdcatholic.org/racism.