Pope Francis's visit to the Kurdistan Region
The Relationship between the Kurdistan Region and the Vatican
After the war for freedom in Iraq ended, a war which was a period of great terror and violence in the country’s history, the Kurdistan Region flourished as a peaceful and stable area where not only Iraqi Christians, but many others from all walks of life, came to for protection and acceptance. The first official and publicized meeting between senior Kurdistan Region officials and the Vatican was in 2005, when President Masoud Barzani visited the Vatican and was greeted by Pope John Paul II. On February 24, 2011, Pope Benedict welcomed President Masoud Barzani on another visit.
Pope Francis had his first meeting with President Masoud Barzani on March 13, 2013, and met a second time at the Vatican on May 30, 2014. The meeting coincided with the sudden influx of refugees to the Kurdistan Region, notably from the Nineveh province. Rather than focus on bilateral relations, Pope Francis and President Masoud Barzani took the opportunity to discuss the plight of Iraqi IDPs and Syrian refugees and jointly called for the world to help.
During that visit, thousands of Christians from the Nineveh province and other areas who had fallen under ISIS control were fleeing toward the Kurdistan Region. It was then that the relationship between the Vatican and the Kurdistan Region deepened, and officials from both sides began working closely together, culminating in a decision for Pope Francis to visit the Kurdistan Region.
On March 5, 2016, Vatican Ambassador to Iraq, Alberto Martin Ortega, thanked the people and the government of the Kurdistan Region for their hospitality in welcoming such a large number of refugees, who had to abandon their homes for safety.
At the time, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani met with Pope Francis on March 2, 2015, to discuss steps the Kurdistan Regional Government was taking to ensure a peaceful life for refugees and IDPs. He spoke of the situation on the ground and how hundreds of thousands of innocent people were forced to leave their homes due to ISIS and threat of terrorism, and found refuge in the Kurdistan Region.
Former Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Pope Francis then met on January 12, 2018 in Vatican City, where they discussed ties between the Kurdistan Region and the Vatican, as well as the situation for Christians in Iraq.
In December 2018, Cardinal Petro Parolin, the Vatican’s Prime Minister, visited Erbil and met with senior officials in the Kurdistan Region. In an interview with Masrour Barzani on December 27, 2018, Parolin praised the role of the Kurdistan Region in providing for refugees to the greatest ability.
Pope Francis’ Visit to the Kurdistan Region
Current Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region, Masrour Barzani, met with the Vatican’s Council of Justice on February 19, 2020 and presented Pope Francis a painting depicting the ethnic, religious, and cultural fabric of coexistence in the Kurdistan Region.
The Prime Minister met with Cardinal Petro Parolin, as the Kurdistan Regional Government announced its commitment to religious coexistence and called for discussions between religious representatives to foster a greater culture of acceptance, reconciliation, and harmony between the people.
Cardinal Parolin also expressed the Vatican’s support for the Kurdistan Region. He praised the people of Kurdistan’s role in the fight against terrorism and in helping protect the achievements of the Kurdistan Region. He recognised the humanitarian role the Kurdistan Regional Government played, and how it continues to promote peaceful coexistence and welcome people of all different religions and cultures, setting an example for the respect of all peoples.
Welcoming Ceremony for the Pope
Pope Francis will travel to the Kurdistan Region on March 7, 2021, and will meet with senior officials in the Kurdistan Region as well as visit areas where residents found refuge from terrorism and sectarianism in Iraq.
- The reception ceremony will be held at Erbil International Airport.
- On the same day, Pope Francis will visit Mosul and Qaraqosh.
- In the courtyard of Bay'aa in Mosul, Pope Francis will lead a prayer for the victims of war.
- At the Great Church of Al-Tarah in Qaraqosh, Pope Francis will lead mass.
- On the evening of the same day, Pope Francis will lead a prayer at the Franso Hariri stadium in Erbil.
Pluralism and Diversity Culture
The Kurdistan Region has been a beacon of pluralism and diversity in the region, and with the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government in 1992, those principles were adopted by the official institutions of the region.
The Kurdistan Region celebrates the diversity of its people, and has always welcomed those who have lost their homes due to violence, political and religious persecution, and were looking to start a new life somewhere safe.
“You are the representative of peace, forgiveness and coexistence, and the role you play in this field is our pride,” Pope Benedict had told President Masoud Barzani in 2011. It was the Kurdistan Region’s welcoming nature which led the Vatican to issue this statement.
Pope Francis, in an interview with the Kurdistan Region’s Prime Minister Masrour Barzani on February 19, 2020, praised the role of the Kurdistan Region in confronting terrorism and in welcoming Christians, who have faced threats throughout Iraq and found safety in the Kurdistan Region.
The horrible attacks in June 2014 caused many Christians and Yezidis in Nineveh to flee to the Kurdistan Region, notably Erbil and Duhok. At that time, the Kurdistan Region was already hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria (Western Kurdistan). The Kurdistan Region continues to this day to serve and protect the hundreds of thousands of refugees and IDPs, regardless of their religious, national, and ethnic backgrounds.
The Kurdistan Region will continue to protect its land and its people, which includes Christians, Yezidis, and all minorities it has welcomed into its arms. On December 27, 2018, during his meeting with Cardinal Petro Barolin, Masrour Barzani recalled that when a group of ISIS members attacked the Kurdistan Region, and he had told his fellow Christians “We stand united, we have a common goal, so we live together and die together. The international community should protect Christians and allow them to stay on their own land, not force them to leave their homes to find safety.”
The people of Kurdistan have sacrificed a lot and understand the costs and efforts that come in the struggle to achieve peace and guarantee freedom for all those in the Kurdistan Region. The Kurdistan Region continues to look toward leaders around the world, political and religious, for their support to celebrate and promote the Kurdistan Region’s culture of tolerance, and help the Kurdistan Region strengthen ties with the world, especially with the Vatican.
The Kurdistan Region will continue to protect its Christian minority, which hold five parliamentary seats in the region’s Parliament, whose children can study in their own language and are provided special accommodations at school, which holds special status within the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, and who contribute meaningfully to the political process, holding seats in the Presidencies, Parliament, and the Council of Ministers and helping shape the history of the Kurdistan Region.
The Role of the Peshmerga Forces
During the war against ISIS and amid violence in neighboring countries, the Kurdistan Region’s culture of coexistence and its hospitality became even more apparent as it welcomed nearly two million refugees and IDPs. The Kurdistan Region’s beauty and culture made headlines around the world and was the highlight during meetings with world leader. The Peshmerga Forces were recognised as heroes for their tireless work and sacrifice in protecting the peoples of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. Kurdistan’s principles of peace and tolerance put the region on the map for the rest of the world to witness. The fearless struggle of the Peshmerga Forces to protect the innocent, no matter their religious or ethnic background, drew the support of leaders around the world, many of whom visited Erbil several times to show their support for the Kurdistan Region and the Peshmerga forces in person.
On March 5, 2016, Vatican Ambassador to Iraq, Alberto Martin Ortega, met with President Masoud Barzani and praised the heroic role of the Peshmerga forces in combatting ISIS. At the time, he expressed his support for the Peshmerga Forces to liberate areas that were still under terrorist occupation.
On November 10, 2019, Ambassador Ortega declared that the Peshmerga Force’s sacrifices was on behalf of all humanity and thanked the people and government of the Kurdistan Region for protecting refugees, IDPs, and minorities across the country during difficult times and keeping their doors open to the vulnerable and needy.
In recent years, the Peshmerga Forces have solidified their role as a shield that protects the people of the Kurdistan Region, Iraq, and the world from terrorism and have become a symbol of resistance toward intolerance.
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