According an Italian Catholic new organization, Pope Francis made a phone call to Patriarch Ignatius Youssef III Younan over the weekend to reassure him of his continued prayers for Iraqi Christians.
Following the July 19 burning down of the Episcopal palace of Syrian-Catholics in Mosul, Italian Catholic news organization SIR reports that Pope Francis made a phone call to the Patriarch Ignatius Youssef III Younan of Antioch the afternoon of July 20 to express his condolences and closeness in a time of persecution.
The agency reports that during their 9 minute conversation, the Pope reassured the patriarch “that he follows closely and with concern the drama of forced and threatened Christians in the Iraqi city of Mosul.”
SIR referred to other reports coming from the Syrian-Catholic Patriarchate, which stated that Patriarch Younan “thanked the Pope” and asked him to “intensify” his efforts to engage world leaders by bringing them face-to-face with the fact that the province of Nineveh is undergoing “a mass cleaning based on religion.”
At the end of the call Pope Francis gave his apostolic blessing to the patriarch and to “all the Christian people of the East,” assuring that he “will always be present in his prayers for peace and security.”
Members of ISIS, a militant group that operates in Iraq and Syria with the aim of establishing a caliphate in northern Syria and Iraq, overtook the country’s second-largest city, Mosul and the city of Tikrit, 95 miles north of Baghdad, June 10.
The group had seized portions of Ramadi and Falluja earlier; Tal Afar was seized by ISIS June 16; and the group briefly held parts of Baquba, 37 miles outside of Baghdad, the following day.
ISIS currently controls much of the Sunni areas of northern and western Iraq, as well as cities along the Euphrates River in northwest Syria.
Thursday the self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate declared to the remaining Christian community of Mosul that they either needed openly convert to Islam, pay an unspecified jizya tax in exchange for their safety while observing certain conditions, or leave their homes with only their clothes, nothing more.
Following Thursday’s declaration, the houses of Mosul Christians were marked with an “N,” signifying “Nazarenes.” As a result, the few remaining Christians have left, marking the first time in history the city has been without Christians.
Fr. Nawar, a priest from Nineveh currently living in Rome, spoke with CNA July 22, stating that the country is overrun by “war, violence, conflict. It is not the same Iraq as before.”
Hailing from the Iraqi city of Karakosh on the plains of Nineveh, a city currently under Kurdish protection and where many citizens fleeing Mosul are taking refuge, Fr. Nawar lamented the exodus of Christians from the city, stating that “for four days there have been no Christians in Mosul.”
“All of them left because there is fear,” he said. “All of the Christians are leaving. Families left for Nineveh by foot. There is no car, no money. Many people right now are afraid, afraid of this future.”
“Today life, Christian life in Iraq, is very hard,” the Iraqi priest continued, explaining how when many times when families have attempted to leave the city they were stopped and asked “where are you going?”
When they responded “I’m leaving because I’m afraid in this city,” militant forces tell them to stop and get out of the car. Then “whoever has money, gold, documents…they take all of it,” Fr. Nawar observed, explaining that for those who do not leave, “I think they die.”
Noting how the future of the country is “not certain” he explained that it’s hard to say what the future will bring “because today thousands of Christian families are leaving for Nineveh. Today there is no Christianity in Mosul.”
“There has been war every day, every day the war has developed, there is no peace, there is no dialogue, there is no communication. All of this is a fact right now in Iraq.”
Despite the current discord and seemingly bleak outlook of the country, Fr. Nawar, who is in daily contact with his bishop and other priests in Iraq, explained that there is still hope “because we believe in Christianity” and “we believe in hope.”
“We are with every person. Sick, in pain. But even today there is fear,” the priest observed. “Every day there is the need to confront this fear. This is the question.”
“Even today many Christians from other cities, other regions also have fear…in Karakosh, also in Baghdad, there is fear. They don’t know, they don’t know what to do in the future.”