Pope Francis’s historic visit has given Iraqis hope of more tolerant days ahead

This extraordinary and historic papal visit to Iraq may have been risky and controversial.

But all around we have found that Pope Francis‘s visit has lifted people and given them some hope of more tolerant days ahead.

In a small town just to the southeast of Iraq’s second city Mosul, I meet Abu Walid and his family.

They are members of Iraq’s dwindling Christian community, which in the 1990s was more than 1.5 million-strong. Now, there are a little over 200,000 Christians left.

Minorities here have suffered years of persecution. The consequence of the removal of Saddam Hussein by a US-led coalition in 2003 was a political vacuum, a power struggle and years of chaos.

Moderate religious sects jostled for political power and Islamist extremists thrived. Amid it all it was the minorities who suffered the most.

Christians and Yazidis were persecuted first by al Qaeda, then the Islamic State.

The group took on various forms from its inception in 2006, until a caliphate across one third of Iraq and much of northern Syria was formed in 2014. Islamic State was finally defeated in 2017.

I spent an hour with Abu Walid and his family. They were trapped in their home when ISIS took their town.

For nearly three weeks he was beaten for not accepting their way of life. The family escaped but their trauma is still so painfully clear.

“I was scared for my daughter, God forbid anything happened to her,” Abu Walid tells me.

“I thought they [ISIS] would take my sons from me; that my sons would end up like them. If I don’t accept [their way of life] they would put a bullet in my head.

“But God was with us and protected us. And people prayed for us.”

His wife Um Walid sobs next to him. “Can you imagine we had a psychological breakdown from the fear,” she says.

“You’re sitting in your house and you cannot leave or go anywhere. You can’t make a sound or switch on your lights. It was like living in a crypt underground from the fear.”

Abu Walid adds: “It’s like you were dead and buried. You are in a grave. Your body is dead but you’re still breathing.”

Two of their three children are sitting with them. Their daughter was born with learning difficulties, and they tell me all three children now have psychological trauma.

It is clear from our chat that they are all deeply scarred. But they survived and they have now returned to their Christian town. The hope is that tolerance and peace will allow more to do the same.

The sense I got is that the visit of Pope Francis will bring them some strength. For all the jeopardy of his visit, it means so much to people like Abu Walid.

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