Outreach to Islam is central to Francis’ mission, but so is heartening Christians who have endured so much.
The Rev. Thabet Almako, a priest at the St. Adday church in the town of Karamles, which was overrun by the Islamic State, said he and about 25 members of his church choir would take a bus together to Mosul, where they planned to sing, at a distance, for the pope. About 90 Christians from his town hoped to attend an open-air Mass with about 5,000 faithful in Erbil on Sunday.
“He will push to make progress,” Father Almako said, noting that many of the people in the area, including his own family, had left the country. He said he hoped that the arrival of the pope would reverse that trend and “attract the people back.”
“We hope the reconstruction will be completed in our towns, that the pope’s visit will change the situation all around Iraq,” he said.
In the mid-20th century, Christians made up about ten percent of the Iraqi population.
The American invasion, which the Vatican strongly opposed, proved disastrous for the country’s Christians. (“I come as a penitent,” Francis said Friday. “Asking forgiveness of heaven and my brothers and sisters for so much destruction and cruelty.”)
Between 2003 and 2010, more than half of Iraq’s Christians left the country, leaving about 500,000 from a high of as possibly many as 1.4 million.
In 2014, the expansion of the Islamic State, or ISIS, represented a new and terrifying threat to Christians and other minorities. In Mosul, ISIS marked the homes of Christians and wrote “Property of the Islamic State of Iraq.” They required Christians to either convert to Islam or pay a special tax and then expelled them from the city altogether.