As Pope Francis begins his historic visit to Iraq, Cardinal Vincent Nichols has urged Catholics to pray for him.
Acknowledging the physical demands the Holy Father faces this weekend as a true sign of his commitment to Iraq, he said the pope will also experience many emotional ones.
Citing the historical resonance, rootedness of Christian faith in the land and the trauma so many people there have been through, Cardinal Nichols said: “These things will make really deep emotional and spiritual demands on Pope Francis and that’s why it’s important that we support him with our prayers and with out spiritual endeavour for him in these crucial days.”
His call came via a Catholic News podcast by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales (CBCEW), in which he recalled his own visit to Erbil in the north of Iraq in April 2015, less than a year after Daesh terrorised the region, taking Iraq’s second city Mosul and killing and displacing thousands.
He recalled the level of security in place, including travelling in an armour-plated vehicle, as well as his chat with the Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda.
“Archbishop Warda woke up one morning and there were over 100,000 refugees knocking on his door. And what did he do? He opened churches. He opened every bit of property they had and said, ‘come and sleep here’.
“He established refugee hostels and camps in all sorts of places. I remember the frame of a building that was not yet developed – just floors and pillars, an open skeleton. And they started putting Portakabins into this concrete framework so the people had somewhere to live.”
The cardinal recalled the hospitality offered by the people in the camps and the “raw courage” of others, including “a tiny old lady, probably in her 80s” who reprimanded a Daesh fighter. She told the cardinal how she had called the fighter a “disgrace” after he stopped a group she was in at the border with Kurdistan and took their jewellery. The fighter then backed off and let them through.
The cardinal said the pope’s visit to Najaf to meet with Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Husaymi Al-Sistani will be a significant moment of the trip.
“That is crucially important, because here you have the spiritual leader of not just Shia Islam in Iraq, but in a whole swathe of the Middle East,” he said. “He is revered and his responses are formative. He will welcome the Holy Father and what they say together and the signals that will give will be hugely important for the Christians, particularly the Catholic people in Iraq.”
Picture: Cardinal Nichols speaks with Archbishop Bashar Warda during his visit to Erbil in April 2015. (Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk).