Vatican City, Jan 25, 2020 / 09:00 am (CNA).- Pope Francis met Saturday with Iraqi President Barham Salih, and discussed the need to secure the future of Iraq’s deep-rooted Christian population.
The president and the pontiff spoke privately for about 30 minutes before Sahil met with Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin and Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States.
A Vatican statement Jan. 25 said the talks focused on “the challenges the country currently faces and the importance of promoting stability and the reconstruction process.”
“Attention then turned to the importance of preserving the historical presence of Christians in the country, of which they are an integral part, and the significant contribution they bring to the reconstruction of the social fabric,” the Holy See said.
During the talks, the Vatican underlined the need to guarantee Christians “security and a place in the future of Iraq.”
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told EWTN News that Pope Francis also expressed his great concern for persecuted Christians in Iraq in his audience with the pope the day prior.
Christianity has been present in the Nineveh plains in Iraq – between Mosul and Iraqi Kurdistan – since the first century. However, since the ousting of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Christians have been fleeing the region.
Five years after the Islamic State captured the Christian communities of the Nineveh plains, the region’s diminished Catholic population are still in the process of rebuilding their destroyed homes and churches.
Recent tensions between the United States and Iran have heightened Iraqi bishops’ fears for Iraq’s fragile Christian communities.
“Iraqi Christians “need the certainty, reassurance, hope and the belief that Iraq can be a peaceful country to live in rather than being victims and endless collateral damage,” Archbishop Bashar Warda told CNA following an Iranian attack on an air base in Erbil Jan. 8.
The Holy See said it encouraged “the path of dialogue” and solutions in favor of the Iraqi people and “with respect for national sovereignty” in the meetings with Salih.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis began protesting government corruption and Iranian influence in Oct. 2019 in the largest protests in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
The Vatican meeting occurred one day after an estimated 200,000 people protested in Baghdad in a demonstration against the U.S. military presence in Iraq organized by Shiite groups with ties to Iran.
Amid the tensions, Cardinal Louis Raphael I Sako, Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon, has called for dialogue.
“The international community has a responsibility for what is happening in the region in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Iran now. They should help people to sit together and to dialogue in a civilized way and to look for a political solution,” Cardinal Sako told EWTN News Jan. 6.