As the world watched Pope Francis celebrate Mass at St. Joseph Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad, Sarmad Ghazala watched with particular interest.

“I was baptized there. My parents were married here. My wife, she was baptized there.”

Ghazala, a member of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego, moved to the United States around age 27 and has lived here ever since.

As the pope traveled through the Middle Eastern country, Ghazala recognized so many places.

When Pope Francis led a prayer service in the rubble of Mosul, Ghazala knew the Catholic leader was standing in a place near where his own father grew up. Ghazala’s father taught at the Dominican seminary there. His grandparents and many of his ancestors are buried in the church cemeteries of Mosul.

“Christian roots run deep in Iraq. It’s part of the social fabric,” he said.

As a child, Ghazala celebrated all of the Catholic feasts and practiced all the Catholic rituals. He had a Christmas tree every year. He attended rigorous religious education classes in preparation for his first Communion. He and his family were free to go to church and worship. Churches were cared for. There were Chaldean schools and social clubs. During special feast days, droves of people would fill the streets in front of the churches. Ghazala never felt religious persecution. But that all changed.

All of Ghazala’s immediate family have moved to the United States. Only distant relatives still remain in Iraq, traveling between the capital and the north. There’s a large Chaldean community in the northern city of Erbil, said Ghazala, because the Kurdish authorities have allowed Christians to seek refuge there.

“Christians don’t really have a tribe or militia to defend them. They’re always at the mercy of other groups,” he added. Thousands upon thousands of Christians and Chaldean Catholics have fled Iraq since the 1990s and 2000s, first due to economic sanctions and then due to sectarian violence against Christians. In 1987, there were 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. Since then, the Christian population has dwindled to around 500,000, according to a 2015 estimate from the European Research Service. The Chaldean church is the largest of the Christian groups in Iraq.

Ghazala and his family eagerly watched much of the pope’s visit to their homeland.

“To say it was a historic or monumental event is an understatement,” said Ghazala. “That’s what I love about Pope Francis — his focus is always on the real message of Jesus.”

The Iraq native said the pope took great risk in visiting a country rife with sectarian and ethnic divisions during the pandemic. The security situation there is tenuous to say the least, Ghazala explained.

“We are proud of our birth country for pulling this off with such difficult circumstances,” he said.

Pope Francis “took great risk and he preached tolerance, he preached brotherhood and he preached unity throughout his trip,” said Ghazala. “That’s what that country needs desperately.”

Ghazala saw social media posts from friends and family who are still in Iraq.

“They’re elated,” he said. “They’re so happy and very optimistic.”

Still, Ghazala said Christians in Iraq have seen glimpses of hope in the past only to be disappointed. But the pope’s trip brought many people together unexpectedly.

As the pope drove through Baghdad, Ghazala was happy to see so many people of different backgrounds gathered and waving flags.

“These are the kinds of things we haven’t seen in this country in a long time,” he said.

“People are ready for change there, ready to turn a page on a painful past,” said Ghazala. “But we’ll see what happens.”

The pope did his part, he said. The rest is up to the people of Iraq.

sarahw@catholicsentinel.org