Chaldean Catholics in Iraq are undertaking a three-day "Nineveh fast" this week to pray for peace and security in their country ahead of Pope Francis' scheduled visit in March.

Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, issued a statement calling on Catholics to fast and pray on Jan. 25-28.

"Let us repent of our sins, pray for salvation from the COVID-19 pandemic, contemplate the meaning of our existence, assume our responsibilities towards our brothers and sisters and our communities, and express solidarity … with people who have lost their jobs and livelihood, and extend a helping hand to them," Sako wrote in a statement published online by the Chaldean Patriarchate of Babylon.

"Let us pray also for the return of peace, security, and stability to our country and the region after all the wars and conflicts that have exhausted it." 

The Fast of Nineveh is a practice observed in some Eastern Catholic rites in the days leading up to Lent. The three-day fast recalls the three days that Jonah spent inside of the whale and the repentance of the Ninevites.

In this case, the Chaldean Patriarch has asked Catholics to fast each day until noon, or evening if they are able, and to pray special prayers daily with Mass. 

"Let us pray also for the success of the visit of Pope Francis. Let us listen to his words, as the people of Nineveh heard the words of Jonah, so that we can have a better life," Sako said.

The Chaldean Catholic Church is one of the 23 autonomous Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with the pope. It is one of the main Christian communities in Iraq, alongside Syriac, Armenian, Assyrian, and Arab Christians.

Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Iraq on March 5-8. He is expected to visit Baghdad and the Christian communities in the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq. 

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The papal visit has been highly anticipated by Catholics in Iraq. After Pope Francis expressed uncertainty in an Italian interview about whether the trip to Iraq would take place as planned, Cardinal Sako published a special prayer, asking Catholics to recite it at each Sunday Mass leading up to the pope's visit.

On the day after the Vatican released a statement indicating that plans for the papal trip to Iraq were moving forward, two suicide bombers detonated explosive vests in a crowded market in central Baghdad near Tayaran Square on Jan. 21.

The Islamic State later claimed responsibility for the suicide attack, which killed at least 32 people and injured more than 100. 

Sako said that the attack caused great concern and sadness in Iraq, noting that "those who were killed were poor people, very poor."

"Unfortunately these attacks have a political purpose. They represent a message to the government and also to the new American president," the cardinal said in an interview with Vatican News on Jan. 26.

The suicide bombing in Baghdad took place the day after the U.S. presidential inauguration. There were more U.S. military personnel in Washington for the occasion than current U.S. troop levels in Iraq, where there were 2,500 U.S. service members as of Jan. 15, according to the Department of Defence.

In a telegram expressing the pope's condolences after the attack, the Vatican Secretary of State wrote that Pope Francis trusted "that all will continue to overcome violence with fraternity, solidarity, and peace."

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Cardinal Sako said that he anticipated that a papal visit to Iraq would bring "comfort and hope."

"The pope will come to say: 'enough, enough wars, enough violence, seek peace and fraternity and the protection of human dignity,'" he said.

"It is a very important event for us Christians, but everyone in Iraq is waiting for this visit, including Muslims, other religious groups, and government leaders," he add.

The cardinal explained that Catholics in Iraq were undertaking the Nineveh fast not only for Iraq, noting that there have been relatively few coronavirus cases recorded in Iraq compared to other parts of the world.

"Therefore, we must pray and ask for God's help to be saved and to end this pandemic for the whole world," he said.