Papal Mass in Erbil 'nothing short of a miracle'

IMG_0031_1.jpg Vida Hanna, director of public and international relations at The Catholic University in Erbil, who is coordinating Pope Francis March 7 Mass in Erbil. Credit: Alejandro Bermudez/CNA.

When Vida Hanna was told by the Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Archeparchy of Erbil that Pope Francis was coming to Iraq, she thought to herself it was just another rumor.

Growing up in the Chaldean Catholic community in Erbil, Hanna, 27, was a little girl when there were rumors that St. John Paul II was planning to come to Iraq for the Jubilee 2000.

"But once I saw the official announcement from the Vatican, I knew this time it was for real," she told CNA from her office at the Catholic University in Erbil.

Hanna, who graduated with a masters degree in peace and justice studies at USD San Diego, is the director of public and international relations at the Catholic university, and Archbishop Warda appointed her as one of the coordinators of the Mass Pope Francis will celebrate March 7 at Erbil's Franso Hariri Stadium.

"COVID has devastated the local economy, so organizing an event of this magnitude, even for the local Kurdish autonomous authorities, was financially impossible," Hanna said. But according to her, the Knights of Columbus stepped in on their own initiative. "With their usual generosity and discretion, they made this dream possible for the whole community," she added.

"Calling this event historical is almost an understatement for all minorities, especially Christian, after centuries of massacre, persecutions, and forced displacement."



Once the funds were secured, Hanna convoked volunteers. They got far more than they expected to, because "all the Christian kids know that this is a once in a life opportunity."

She then put the Catholic university IT managers to work on software that would guarantee high standards of identity recognition.

"This took quite an effort, because, as you can understand, the security standards have to be very high: we need to double check documents, correct name spellings, make sure they match IDs, and so forth," she told CNA.  

The volunteers were trained at the Catholic university, gathered information from Christians in a 50 mile radius from Erbil, and set up 30 computers at the campus. "The sign-in for the 10,000 available seats lasted two weeks, while simultaneously, a group of volunteers with church and government experts scouted the stadium, established perimeters, security areas, and contingency plans," Hanna says. 

She told CNA that with all this details taken care of, "the next challenge was transportation." "Keep in mind, never before in Erbil, 10,000 people have been simultaneously transported to a single place in an orderly fashion. But we are now very confident that everything is in place and will work fine." 

Hanna is especially happy that the Mass is involving so many young people. Beside the 250 young volunteers, there are another 100 youth in the chorus that will accompany the Mass.

"All of the local young Christians are in awe that this is happening to them and their generation... and it is so much needed! Only the Holy Father can bring the sense of security, the inner peace, the hope for a society that accepts religious diversity," she said.

During the Mass, local Muslim authorities will attend as well as minorities such as the Yazidis. The celebration will include passages in Aramaic, Kurdish, Arabic, English, and Italian. "I will be doing one of the readings in Kurdish… so I am a bit nervous," Hanna joked.

"But the important thing is that the Mass will be not only the celebration of Jesus' sacrifice, but also a strong message to our young Christians: you can stay, you don't need to leave, you can build a future here, in the land where we Christians have been for almost two millennia."  

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