“I ask the pope to travel by car along the main highway north. Maybe they’ll pave that too,” Hussein Habib wrote, according to an AFP report.
Twenty-nine humanitarian aid organizations operating in Iraq, including Islamic Relief Worldwide and Catholic Relief Services, signed a joint statement on March 2 welcoming Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq, which will take place on March 5-8.
“As faith-based organizations, we fully embrace this message of fraternity and dialogue that Pope Francis is bringing to Iraq,” the aid organizations’ letter said.
“We firmly believe it represents a necessary way forward to heal past wounds and build a future for the country’s diverse communities. We work in collaboration with the national and local authorities to help communities reconcile, rebuild peace, and reclaim their collective rights to safety, services, and livelihoods.”
Hassan Amer, a young Muslim working with Catholic Relief Services’ social cohesion initiative, Shared Future, said: “In Iraq we have a saying: ‘people for people.’”
“Regardless of their religion, people must be for people. They must support and stand up for others. The pope’s visit underlines this message for Iraqi communities,” Amer said.
Pope Francis’ visit comes as the country’s security situation remains unstable. On March 3, two days before the pope’s departure, 10 rockets hit Ain al-Assad military airport in western Iraq, which hosts US-led coalition troops, killing one US contractor, according to AFP.
In their joint statement, the 29 aid groups highlighted the significant challenges facing Iraq, including the dire need of the country’s 1.2 million internally displaced persons and 4.8 million returnees.
“Iraq is the cradle of human civilization and a beautiful country of rich cultural and religious diversity. For centuries, many ethnic and faith communities lived side by side in this land,” the organizations wrote in their statement.
“However, in recent decades Iraq has suffered from war, insecurity and instability and, most recently, from the rise of ISIS. Such a sequence of conflicts has deeply strained relations between communities and damaged the country’s social fabric.”
“Meanwhile, a worsening economic crisis, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is pushing many into poverty and depriving the government of resources needed to assist its own people,” it added.
One way that Catholic Relief Services has been working to help rebuild devastated communities is through the Shared Future program, funded by USAID, which brings together youth from different religions to work together in rebuilding projects.
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“I think it is a very interesting project because basically what we do is, in coordination with local religious leaders from different religions, we put together youth and let them analyze the common problems and come up with solutions and then we support the implementation of those solutions financially, technically, etc,” Bernocchi said.
“And so these are joint initiatives that are really useful to reconnect people from different communities, because you know the problem is that ISIS had this hellish project to destroy diversity -- and diversity is the social fabric of this country.”
The unemployment rate for young people in Iraq is estimated to be 36%, according to a report published by the Atlantic Council in February.
Low oil prices, government waste and corruption, and a poor security situation further hinder the country’s potential for economic growth.
About 60% of Iraqi’s population is under the age of 25. According to the report, “many of these young Iraqis are unemployed, or at least under-engaged, meaning that they are often impoverished, bored, and resentful. Many have been traumatized by nearly constant warfare.”
The report said: “Years of conflict have significantly diminished educational opportunities, making many Iraqis unemployable even in trades, due to their lack of skills. There are likely not enough skilled Iraqis to take on technical jobs, should the need for these jobs increase.”