A Catholic charity said on Monday that there are “signs of hope” for Iraq’s beleaguered Christian minority despite insecurity, economic challenges, and political instability.

Speakers from Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a pontifical foundation offering financial support to Iraqi Christians, gave a cautiously optimistic assessment of the community’s future at a virtual press conference on May 9.

Thomas Heine-Geldern, executive president of ACN International, told journalists that he had recently returned from his third visit to the Middle Eastern country.

He said that on his first visit, in 2014, there was an atmosphere of fear amid the advance of the Islamic State. On the second, in 2018, “the whole mood was very depressed.”

“And now, 2022, there are a lot of signs of hope,” he said, “and still a lot of requirements for the Iraqi government, but also the international community, to support the development of the whole country, including of the autonomous province of Kurdistan and the different villages and towns which are inhabited by Christians.”

John Pontifex, head of press and information at ACN UK, said he had a similar impression when he visited the Muslim-majority country of 40 million people earlier this year.

Noting that the Christian population had fallen from around 1.3 million before 2003 to perhaps as low as 150,000 today, he said: “I’ve been following Iraq for 20 years — all the time I’ve worked with Aid to the Church in Need — and I think this trip showed the most signs of hope in terms of steps forward to address this large-scale decline.”

Regina Lynch described the impact of Pope Francis’ groundbreaking visit to Iraq in March 2021.

The director of projects at ACN International, who traveled as part of the papal delegation, said: “I saw for myself how encouraged and moved the Iraqi Christians were by the pope’s visit.”

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“Pope Francis’ visit, I think, really has given them hope and a hope that seems to be lasting.”

The speakers highlighted developments such as the growth of the Catholic University in Erbil in the Kurdistan Region, northern Iraq, while cautioning that the Christian community required ongoing international support.

Pontifex said that the most moving part of his trip to Iraq was a visit to the predominantly Christian town of Batnaya in the Nineveh Plains.

He said: “Batnaya was the most destroyed of the 13 or more Christian towns and villages. And when I went there in 2017, it was completely laid to waste. It was Armageddon. It was absolute devastation, not a stone upon a stone such was the extent of it.”

“It was there that we found these graffiti written by Daesh [Islamic State]. One of them said, for example, ‘All you slaves of the Cross, you will have no peace in the Islamic land. Either you go or we will kill you.’ Well, in fact, it is Islamic State which have gone, at least for now.”

He went on: “Up to 500 people, we were told, are back now in Batnaya and we were there as they were laying the flagstones of the church. They were sanding down the new marble altar, all in time for the Easter services. And even though those preparations were not quite complete, they were nonetheless able to celebrate Easter Mass.”

“This is the first time that they’ve been able to have Mass in this great church since before ISIS. And with the official opening of the Al-Tahira school on May 1, the return of St. Kyriakos’ Church to use, these are symbols, signs of real hope.”

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