28 May 2019
Pope Francis places a picture of his parents onto the “Share the Journey” photo mosaic during an audience with delegates attending the general assembly of Caritas Internationalis, at the Vatican on 27 May 2019. At right is Philippine Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, president of Caritas Internationalis. The pope called for charity to be given with heart and soul.
(photo: CNS/Vatican Media)
Charity should be given freely and lived humbly with the poor, never letting it become hypocrisy, a slick business or a way to soothe a troubled conscience, Pope Francis said.
“Not only does charity that doesn’t ‘reach the wallet’ end up being fake charity, so does charity that doesn’t involve the heart, soul and our whole being,” he said on 27 May during an audience at the Vatican with delegates attending the general assembly of Caritas Internationalis.
The Vatican-based confederation of more than 160 Catholic national charities was holding its 21st general assembly in Rome, electing new officials, reviewing polices and focusing on the theme, “One Human Family, One Common Home.”
The pope thanked delegates for working to help those “left on the margins” and for building up in the world God’s kingdom where justice, love and peace reign.
He said charity, integral development and ecclesial communion were three key elements in Caritas’ mission.
“Charity is not a sterile service or a simple donation to hand over to put our conscience at ease,” he said.
“Charity is God our Father’s embrace of every person, particularly of the least and those who suffer.”
The church is not a humanitarian organization, the pope said. It is something so much bigger: “In Christ, it is the sign and instrument of God’s love for humanity and for creation.”
The pope urged the Caritas representatives to live out this charity freely, humbly and with a spirit of poverty.
“One cannot live charity without having a personal relationship with the poor — to live with the poor and for the poor” so as to learn from them how charity is sharing.
“It is necessary to always be careful not to fall into the temptation of living a hypocritical or deceptive charity, identified with almsgiving” or fundraising or used as a “sedative” to relieve an uneasy conscience, the pope said.
“This is why one must avoid equating charitable activity with philanthropic strength or with well-planned efficiency or with over-the-top and flamboyant organization,” he said.
Pope Francis told the delegates that of all the ways people could best imitate God, the most desirable virtue is charity.
This is why it is “scandalous” to see people working in charitable organizations become bureaucrats, executives or businessmen, he said. “They speak a lot about charity, but they live in luxury” or wasteful extravagance or else “they organize forums on charity and unnecessarily waste a lot of money.”
“That is why I would like to reemphasize that charity is not an idea or a pious sentiment,” but it is a real encounter with Christ, and it is wanting to live with the heart of God, the pope said.
28 March 2019
In this image from 2015, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, accompanied by CNEWA’s regional director for Lebanon, Michael Constantin (center), greets a young displaced Iraqi in Erbil, Iraq. (photo: CNS/John E. Kozar, CNEWA)
Iraqis and Syrians returning to their homelands and refugees living abroad need the help of all Catholics and people of goodwill, said the Congregation for Eastern Churches.
“Greater cooperation and a generous commitment by Christians all over the world to their brothers and sisters of the Holy Land and the Middle East is needed,” it said in its annual appeal, which the Vatican press office published on 28 March.
In a letter sent to bishops around the world, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, congregation prefect, asked for continued support for the traditional Good Friday collection for the Holy Land.
The collection, taken up at the request of the pope, is administered by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land — an administratively autonomous province of the Franciscan order — and the Congregation for Eastern Churches. The congregation monitors how all funds are used and supports projects in the Holy Land, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Turkey, Iran and Iraq.
The Franciscan Custody is responsible for most of the shrines connected with the life of Jesus as well as for providing pastoral care to the region’s Catholics, running schools, operating charitable institutions and training future priests and religious.
Part of its emergency funding efforts to Eastern-rite and Latin-rite dioceses in the Middle East, the congregation said, includes helping Iraqis and Syrians who are slowly returning to their homelands, as well as their fellow citizens still living as refugees.
“In order to assure the proper means necessary for a dignified life for those who return to Iraq and Syria and those who found refuge in surrounding countries like Lebanon and Jordan, the collaboration of all people of goodwill is needed,” a note from the congregation said.
Most of the collection goes to the Franciscan Custody. Of the amount earmarked for the congregation — which was 8.6 million euro (more than US$9.6 million) last year — went toward: the formation and support of seminarians, priests, religious and laypeople; educational activities for students in the Holy Land; assistance to churches in the Middle East; and emergency aid and extra spending for Iraqis and Syrians, the congregation said.
A detailed list of the projects supported through the funds given to the Franciscan Custody included assistance to the Christian minority in the region, providing pilgrims access to the archaeological sites and Christian shrines and supporting education.
Among the maintenance and restoration work carried out were projects at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth and the Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor.
The collection also helped fund activities and educational grants for young people in the Holy Land, housing and small business projects there, as well as emergency aid to Syrians and Iraqis.
5 March 2019
Tags: Middle East Christians Holy Land Eastern Churches Holy Land Christians
In this image from 2017, displaced Iraqi Christian boys serve Mass at a Catholic church in Amman, Jordan. Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic, the Vatican observer to U.N. agencies in Geneva, said on 5 March that violating religious freedom harms not only the individuals being persecuted, it also damages communities and often opens the door to further violence.
(photo: CNS/Muhammad Hamed, Reuters)
Violating religious freedom harms not only the individuals being persecuted, it also damages communities and often opens the door to further violence, a Vatican representative said.
Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic, the Vatican observer to U.N. agencies in Geneva, also insisted governments should make sure laws allow for conscientious objection, so people can “act freely, in accordance with their deepest conviction.”
The archbishop spoke on 5 March during a session of the Human Rights Council devoted to a report on freedom of religion or belief. The Vatican press office released the archbishop’s remarks the same day.
“The right to religious freedom blossoms or withers together with all human rights,” he said.
Despite decades of progress in putting the freedom of religion and belief alongside the right of freedom of expression “as one of the center pillars of the architecture of human rights,” he said “recent reports on the abuse of this right are astonishing.”
“They are worrisome,” he said, “for the predicament of victims who, in so many parts of the world, courageously face discrimination, intolerance, aggression, imprisonment and even death for staying faithful to their conscience.”
It is also worrisome for the future because when people and communities “are not allowed to live and celebrate in coherence with their deepest convictions, the bonds that keep society together dissolve and the violation of rights often turns into a violent crisis,” he said.
Another aspect of freedom of religion that “should be given due consideration,” he said, is the freedom from any form of coercion to act contrary to one’s faith, he said.
With so many more people of different cultures, religions and beliefs living side by side, it is “vital and sensible to incorporate into legislation, with due prudence and wisdom, options that allow everyone, when faced with a problem of conscience, to act freely, in accordance with their deepest conviction.”
Archbishop Jurkovic lamented increasing calls to restrict the right of conscientious objection.
Quoting a statement by Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s foreign minister, to the Human Rights
Council on 25 February, he said the desire for such restrictions “show how some politicians and even some quarters of international agencies, forgetting their nature and acting without a mandate, are still uncomfortable with the right of freedom of conscience and belief.”
15 November 2018
Tags: Iraqi Christians Vatican Persecution
Pope Francis bids farewell to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin following a private audience at the Vatican on 15 November. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis welcomed Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to the Vatican on 15 November for a private discussion that included the importance of building greater trust between Israelis and Palestinians.
During their 35-minute meeting, they spoke about the importance of mutual trust in negotiations “so as to reach an accord respecting the legitimate aspirations of both peoples,” the Vatican said in a statement.
“The hope was expressed that suitable agreements may be reached” also between Israeli authorities and local Catholic communities “in relation to some issues of common interest,” it said, adding that the Holy See and the State of Israel would soon celebrate the 25th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations.
Aided by interpreters, the pope and president spoke about “the political and social situation in the region, marked by different conflicts and the consequent humanitarian crises. In this context, the parties highlighted the importance of dialogue between the various religious communities in order to guarantee peaceful coexistence and stability,” the statement said.
“Mention was made of the importance of building greater mutual trust in view of the resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians so as to reach an accord respecting the legitimate aspirations of both peoples, and of the Jerusalem question, in its religious and human dimension for Jews, Christians and Muslims, as well as the importance of safeguarding its identity and vocation as City of Peace.”
Exchanging gifts, Rivlin gave Pope Francis a small bas relief replicating the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.
According to pool reporters, the president told the pope that the image showed how one could divide the various parts of the city, but also unite it in new ways. The walled Old City is divided into the Jewish quarter, the Armenian quarter, the Christian quarter and the Muslim quarter.
“Jerusalem has been a holy city for the three monotheistic religions for centuries. For the Jewish people, Jerusalem has been the spiritual center since the days of the First Temple over 3,000 years ago, but it is also a microcosm of our ability to live together,” the president tweeted later, adding a photo of the two of them speaking during the gift exchange.
The Vatican consistently has called for a special status for Jerusalem, particularly its Old City, in order to protect and guarantee access to the holy sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
During the meeting, Pope Francis gave Rivlin a large medallion, which the pope described as representing wheat being able to grow in the desert. Pool reporters said the pope told the president he hoped this desert would be transformed from a desert of animosity into a land of friendship.
The Jerusalem Post reported that Rivlin thanked the pope for supporting the fight against anti-Semitism.
“Your absolute condemnation of acts of anti-Semitism and your definition of such acts as anti-Christian are a significant step in the ongoing fight to stamp it out,” Rivlin said.
Members of Rivlin’s entourage said they also talked about the controversy between Jerusalem’s city government and the Catholic Church concerning city property taxes.
In early February, the Jerusalem Municipality announced it would begin collecting $186.4 million in property taxes from some 887 church-owned properties that were not houses of prayer. Since then, the Israeli government set up a negotiating team to resolve the dispute.
6 November 2018
Tags: Pope Francis Israel Jews
Pope Francis greets a rabbi during an audience with a group of rabbis attending the World Congress of Mountain Jews, at the Vatican on 5 November. (photo: CNS/Vatican Media)
Sharing the same roots as their Jewish brothers and sisters, Christians cannot be anti-Semitic and must work to ensure anti-Semitism is banned from society, Pope Francis said.
Also, he said, “the Holocaust must be commemorated so that there will be a living memory of the past. Without a living memory, there will be no future, for if the darkest pages of history do not teach us to avoid the same errors, human dignity will remain a dead letter.”
The pope made his remarks during an audience on 5 November with a group of rabbis attending the World Congress of Mountain Jews.
Mountain Jews -- who are believed to be descendants of Persian Jews -- settled centuries ago in the Caucasus region, maintaining their own unique language and various customs. They were also targeted and exterminated by German troops during World War II.
Speaking to the delegates, the pope expressed his joy that their visit marked the first time their community visited a pope at the Vatican. Pope Francis had met with Mountain Jews during his 2016 visit to Azerbaijan.
The pope anticipated the commemoration 9 November of the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht when Jews, their property and places of worship were attacked throughout Nazi Germany. The attacks, he said, represented an intent to uproot “from the hearts of individuals and a people that which is absolutely inviolable: the presence of the Creator.”
“The attempt to replace the God of goodness with the idolatry of power and the ideology of hatred ended in the folly of exterminating creatures,” he added.
This is why, he said, “religious freedom is a supreme good to be safeguarded, a fundamental human right and a bulwark against the claims of totalitarianism.”
“Sadly, anti-Semitic attitudes are also present in our own times,” Pope Francis told his audience.
“As I have often repeated, a Christian cannot be an anti-Semite; we share the same roots. It would be a contradiction of faith and life,” he said. “Rather, we are called to commit ourselves to ensure anti-Semitism is banned from the human community.”
The pope emphasized the importance of friendship between Jews and Catholics, saying “we are called to promote and to expand interreligious dialogue for the sake of humanity.”
“I ask the Almighty to bless our journey of friendship and trust, so that we can dwell always in peace and be, wherever we find ourselves, artisans and builders of peace.”
5 November 2018
Tags: Pope Francis Jews
A woman mourns during a 3 November funeral liturgy at Prince Tadros Orthodox Church in Minya, Egypt, for a group of Christian pilgrims killed by gunmen as they headed to a monastery on 2 November. (photo: CNS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany, Reuters)
In the wake of a deadly attack against Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt, Pope Francis prayed for the victims, their families and the entire Christian community.
Seven Christians were killed and at least seven others -- including children -- were injured after armed gunmen attacked two buses near the Monastery of St. Samuel the Confessor in Minya province on 2 November. Another attack took place in the same area in 2017, which left 28 people dead.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the latest attack and Egypt’s interior ministry announced on 4 November that in a shootout, its security forces had killed 19 militants they accused of being behind the attack.
After praying the Angelus with people gathered in St. Peter’s Square on 4 November, the pope said he was saddened to hear about the terrorist attack against the Coptic Orthodox church.
“I pray for the victims, the pilgrims killed for the sole reason of being Christian,” he said. He asked that Mary, the Mother of God, would “console the families and the entire community,” and he led those gathered in the square in praying the Hail Mary.
Watch a video of the pope's remarks below, from CNS.
28 June 2018
Pope Francis leads a consistory to create 14 new cardinals in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on 28 June. (photo:CNS/Paul Haring)
Defending the weak or hopeless and becoming a servant to those most in need is the best promotion one can ever receive, Pope Francis told new and old cardinals.
“None of us must feel ‘superior’ to anyone. None of us should look down at others from above. The only time we can look at a person in this way is when we are helping them to stand up,” he said during a ceremony in which he elevated 14 bishops and archbishops from 11 different nations to the College of Cardinals on 28 June.
The formal ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica began with Pope Francis, wearing a miter and carrying a pastoral staff of retired Pope Benedict XVI, leading a procession of the soon-to-be cardinals -- in their new red robes -- while the choirs sang, “Tu es Petrus” (You are Peter).
Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako of Baghdad approached a microphone to give thanks on behalf of all the new cardinals who have been “called to serve the church and all people with an even greater love.”
The 69-year-old patriarch, whose country has lost an estimated 1 million of what had been 1.5 million Christians over the years of war, violence by extremist militants and economic insecurity, thanked the pope for his special attention to the plight and struggle of “the tiny flock” of Christians throughout the Middle East.
“We pray and hope that your efforts to promote peace will change the hearts of men and women for the better” and help the world become a more “dignified” place for all people, the patriarch said.
Being made a cardinal, he noted, was not a prize or a personal honor, but an invitation to live out one’s mission more firmly dedicated to “the very end,” even to give one’s life, as symbolized by the cardinal’s color of red.
Their mission, the pope said in his homily, is to remember to stay focused on Christ, who always ministered and led the way, unperturbed by his disciples’ infighting, jealousies, failings and compromises.
On the road to Jerusalem, as the disciples were locked in “useless and petty discussions,” Jesus walks ahead yet tells them forcefully, when it comes to lording authority over others, “it shall not be so among you; whoever would be great among you must be your servant.”
What good is it, the pope asked, to “gain the whole world if we are corroded within” or “living in a stifling atmosphere of intrigues that dry up our hearts and impede our mission,” including those “palace intrigues” in curial offices.
“But it shall not be so among you,” the Lord says, because their eyes, heart and resources must be dedicated “to the only thing that counts: the mission,” the pope said.
Personal conversion and church reform are always missionary, he said, which demands that looking out for and protecting one’s own interests be stopped, so that looking out for and protecting what God cares about remains at the fore.
Letting go of sins and selfishness means “growing in fidelity and willingness to embrace the mission” so that “when we see the distress of our brothers and sisters, we will be completely prepared to accompany and embrace them” instead of being “roadblocks ... because of our short-sightedness or our useless wrangling about who is most important.”
“The church’s authority grows with this ability to defend the dignity of others, to anoint them and to heal their wounds and their frequently dashed hopes. It means remembering that we are here because we have been asked ‘to preach good news to the poor ... to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,” he said.
“Dear brother cardinals and new cardinals,” the pope said, the “Lord walks ahead of us, to keep reminding us that the only credible form of authority is born of sitting at the feet of others in order to serve Christ.”
“This is the highest honor that we can receive, the greatest promotion that can be awarded us: to serve Christ in God’s faithful people. In those who are hungry, neglected, imprisoned, sick, suffering, addicted to drugs, cast aside,” he said.
Pope Francis then read the formula of creation and the names of all 14 cardinals; each new cardinal recited the creed and took an oath of fidelity to Pope Francis and his successors.
One by one, each cardinal went up to the pope and knelt before him. The pope gave them each a cardinal’s ring, a red skullcap and a three-cornered red hat. The assembly applauded for each new cardinal as the pope stood and embraced each one, in some cases, speaking to them briefly and privately.
With the new members, the College of Cardinals numbered 226, with 125 of them being cardinal electors -- those under 80 and eligible to vote in a conclave. With this consistory, Pope Francis has created almost half of the voting cardinals.
The new cardinals are from Iraq, Spain, Italy, Poland, Pakistan, Portugal, Peru, Madagascar, Japan, Mexico and Bolivia. The current College of Cardinals now represents six continents and 88 countries.
The 14 cardinals who received their red hats from the pope were Cardinals:
-- Louis Sako, 69.
-- Luis Ladaria, 74, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
-- Angelo De Donatis, 64, papal vicar for the Diocese of Rome.
-- Giovanni Angelo Becciu, 70, substitute secretary of state, prefect-designate of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes.
-- Konrad Krajewski, 54, papal almoner.
-- Joseph Coutts of Karachi, Pakistan, 72.
-- Antonio dos Santos Marto of Leiria-Fatima, Portugal, 71.
-- Pedro Barreto of Huancayo, Peru, 74.
-- Desire Tsarahazana of Toamasina, Madagascar, 64.
-- Giuseppe Petrocchi of L’Aquila, Italy, 69.
-- Thomas Aquinas Manyo Maeda of Osaka, Japan, 69.
-- Sergio Obeso Rivera, retired archbishop of Xalapa, Mexico, 86.
-- Toribio Ticona Porco, retired bishop of Corocoro, Bolivia, 81.
-- Aquilino Bocos Merino, 80, former superior general of the Claretian religious order.
18 May 2018
Tags: Pope Francis Vatican
Palestinians pray at Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem's Old City on 18 May. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said that a competitive attitude between Christians and Muslims fosters the belief that religions are a source of tension and violence, not peace. (photo: CNS/Ammar Awad, Reuters)
A competitive attitude between Christians and Muslims fosters the belief that religions are a source of tension and violence, not peace, said Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran.
“It is important that we Christians and Muslims recall the religious and moral values that we share, while acknowledging our differences,” said the cardinal, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
“By recognizing what we hold in common and by showing respect for our legitimate differences, we can more firmly establish a solid foundation for peaceful relations, moving from competition and confrontation to an effective cooperation for the common good,” he said in a message to Muslims.
The annual message was for Ramadan, which began 16 May, and Eid ul Fitr, the feast marking the end of the monthlong fast, which will be on or around 15 June this year. The Vatican published the message 18 May.
Titled, “Christians and Muslims: From Competition to Collaboration,” the message expressed appreciation for “the great effort by the Muslims throughout the world to fast, pray and share the Almighty’s gifts with the poor.”
The importance of the month was an opportunity to share some thoughts about relations between Christians and Muslims and the need to move from competition to collaboration, the cardinal wrote.
“A spirit of competition has too often marked past relations between Christians and Muslims,” he said, adding that “the negative consequences of which are evident: jealousy, recriminations and tensions.”
“In some cases, these have led to violent confrontations, especially where religion has been instrumentalized, above all due to self-interest and political motives,” the message said.
This kind of “interreligious competition” hurts the image of religions and their followers, “and it fosters the view that religions are not sources of peace, but of tension and violence,” it said.
To prevent and overcome such negative consequences, the cardinal wrote, it is key for Christians and Muslims to recognize what values they share and show respect concerning legitimate differences.
Working together for the common good should include assisting those most in need, allowing both sides “to offer a credible witness to the Almighty’s love for the whole of humanity,” the message said.
“So that we may further peaceful and fraternal relations, let us work together and honor each another,” Cardinal Tauran wrote. “In this way we will give glory to the Almighty and promote harmony in society, which is becoming increasingly multi-ethnic, multireligious and multicultural.”
24 January 2018
Tags: Interreligious Middle East Peace Process Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran
A man from the Yazidi minority and young people pray at a shrine being rebuilt after it was destroyed in 2017 by Islamic State militants in Bashiqa, Iraq.
(photo: CNS/Khalid al Mousily, Reuters)
All people have a right to freely profess their own religious beliefs without fear of duress, Pope Francis said, calling on the world community to do more to protect the Yazidi minority.
“It is unacceptable that human beings are persecuted and killed because of their religion,” he told a group of Yazidis during a private audience at the Vatican on 24 January.
The Yazidis are a monotheistic religious minority, indigenous to areas in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. They have been especially persecuted by Islamic State militants, who — as they did with Christians — have forced them to convert or be killed.
He told the representatives, who were now living in Germany, that his encounter with them was also a sign of his solidarity and concern for all Yazidis, particularly those in Iraq and Syria.
His thoughts and prayers went to all “innocent victims of senseless and inhuman barbarity,” underlining that all people have the right “to freely and without duress profess and their own religious belief.”
The pope said the Yazidis’ rich spiritual and cultural history has been scarred by the “indescribable violations of fundamental human rights: kidnappings, slavery, torture, forced conversions and killings.”
“Your sanctuaries and places of prayer have been destroyed,” he said, and those lucky enough to have been able to flee have had to leave behind so much, including that which they held to be most holy and dear.
Aware of this tragedy, “the international community cannot remain a mute and inert spectator.”
He encouraged organizations and “people of goodwill” to help rebuild homes and places of worship that have been destroyed and to seek out concrete ways to create the right conditions for people to return to their homelands.
He also said he hoped everything possible would be done to help save those who were still in the hands of terrorists, locate those still missing and identify and properly bury those who have been murdered.
All over the world, he said, there are religious and ethnic minorities — including Christians — who are persecuted because of their faith.
“The Holy See will never tire of intervening by denouncing these situations, calling for the recognition, protection and respect” of minorities as well as calling for dialogue and reconciliation, he said.
“Once more I speak out in favor of the rights of the Yazidis, above all their right to exist as a religious community. No one can allocate oneself the power to eliminate a religious group because it is not among those (who are) ‘tolerated,’ ” he said.
Related: Religious Minorities in the Middle East: The Yazidis
18 July 2017
In the video above, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the papal nuncio to Iraq, expresses his hopes for Christians in that beleaguered country. (video: CNS/YouTube)
To understand the current situation in Iraq — the evolving and complex conflicts there, and the fear and resilience of its Christians — one has to understand its past, which is often ignored or unknown in the West, said a former papal representative to the country.
“History is itself a victory over ignorance, marginalization and intolerance; it is a call for respect and to not repeat the mistakes of the past,” said Cardinal Fernando Filoni in his book, “The Church in Iraq.”
The book is also “a testimonial” to the victims of “the Islamic terrorism of ISIS,” he told the Christians and non-Christians he met when Pope Francis sent him as his personal representative to encounter and pray with these shaken communities that fled the Islamic State.
That brief visit in 2014 was a homecoming of sorts.
The Italian cardinal, now 71, lived in Iraq during a time of great tension and turmoil. St. John Paul II made him the apostolic nuncio — the pope’s diplomatic representative — to Iraq and Jordan in January 2001. Several months later, after 9/11, the United States administration started building pressure against Iraq, pushing for military action.
St. John Paul firmly opposed military intervention and, despite the fact that he sent peace-seeking missions to Washington and Baghdad, the United States attacked.
“Not even the stern warning of the saint-pope could deter President George W. Bush from his purpose,” the cardinal wrote. He said the day of the invasion, 19 March 2003, became “a very sad day for Iraq and for the whole world.”
The nunciature never shut down, not even during the airstrikes and occupation or the ensuing chaos of looting and revenge.
It was during his tenure there in Baghdad, which ended in 2006, that Cardinal Filoni went through the nunciature’s archives, which housed “a rich history” of documentation and letters, detailing the history of the Vatican’s diplomatic relations with Iraq and the establishment of an episcopal see in Baghdad in the 16th century.
“Naturally, this caught my eye,” he said, and the idea for a book emerged there in the wealth of material buried in an archive.
The book’s chapters take a historical overview of the church’s long presence in Mesopotamia, dating back to the time of St. Thomas the Apostle, and looks at how the expanding early Christian communities there evolved, faced internal divisions and challenges, and still shared their unique gifts.
Looking at the church’s journey in the past also made him realize: “This is unknown to us. And so I thought, writing a book that traced, especially for us in the West, the birth, the evolution of this history up to present day could be ... of service to Christianity in the Middle East, particularly in Mesopotamia, which is suffering because of expulsions, persecution or discrimination.”
Published first in Italian in 2015, The Catholic University of America Press is releasing the English edition toward the end of July in the United States and in mid-August in the United Kingdom.
The cardinal spoke to Catholic News Service in Rome during an interview at the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, where he has served as prefect since 2011.
The book looks particularly at how minorities and the country as a whole suffered invasions, despots and Western hegemony, and yet tenaciously held on to its cultures and religious identities.
“In order to defend their identity within this great sea of Islam, Christians had to withdraw into themselves, keeping their own language, which dates back to the time of Jesus, that is, Aramaic,” he said. While, over the centuries, the everyday spoken language developed into different dialects, the liturgy still maintained the original form of ancient Aramaic, he added.
Even though Christians held on to their traditions and culture, they were “truly open” and didn’t ignore the world around them, learning and speaking Arabic, for example, he said.
This kind of everyday contact between Christians and their Muslim neighbors also led to a sharing of ideas, influence and mutual respect on the local level, Cardinal Filoni said.
For example, he recalled when he lived in Baghdad, he visited a church dedicated to Mary in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood.
“I was astounded by the fact that the walls of this church were dirty” with what looked like handprints smudged everywhere, he said.
When he asked church members, “‘Why don’t you clean this?’ They said ‘No! Because these are the signs of the Muslim women who come to pray to Mary, mother of Jesus, and as a sign of their prayer, they leave an imprint of their hand.’”
Since Mary is revered by Muslims, he said many expectant mothers visit this church to pray to her for protection.
“This influence, for example of Mary, in people’s daily lives” and similar devotions to prayer, fasting and charity, fostered closer relationships, mutual respect and understanding between Christians and Muslims, he said.
“A modern Iraq, full of history, of possibility and responsibility — not least because of its huge oil resources, which continue to be a source of discord, jealousy, envy, and oppression — should be defended, helped, and supported more than ever,” the cardinal concludes in his book.
While the primary responsibility for allowing Muslim, Christian and other minorities to return to their country and help build its future belongs to Iraq’s three largest communities — Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds — the rest of the world is also “in some way responsible for this crisis,” he told CNS.
“We all have to assume responsibility to rebuild, which is very difficult, because once people emigrate, they very rarely go back,” he said. “But if we can still preserve the coexistence of these even small communities (that remain), this will benefit peace, which is essential so that Christians don’t keep leaving behind this ancient land so rich in culture, tradition and history.”