EL CAJON, California: As Pope Francis begins his historic visit to Iraq on Friday, his journey will be closely watched by a community of Christians thousands of kilometers away in southern California.
El Cajon, near San Diego, is home to one of the largest populations of Iraqi Chaldean Catholics in the US.
As increasing numbers of Christians left Iraq in recent decades, fleeing violence and persecution, many Chaldeans arriving in America relocated to the city.
There are an estimated 15,000 Chaldeans living in El Cajon.
For many, the pope’s visit to Iraq is a time to reflect on their past lives and pray for the community still living there.
“This is a visit of love and support to Iraq as a whole and specifically to the Christians of Iraq,” Emad Hanna Al-Shaikh, Rev. Msgr. of Our Mother of Perpetual Help Church in El Cajon, told Arab News.
“Enough with the rage and displacement. We need to have love among us and we look forward to his visit where we wish for love and peace to prevail in all religions and nationalities.”
Like many Catholic Christians around the world, the community in El Cajon has planned celebrations in support of the visit.
“We have a program that will start on Friday,” Al-Shaikh said. “We will do preparations for a small sort of festival especially this Sunday. We will have a celebration, prayers and hymns in the front yard.”
One parishioner, Hadeel Albert, told Arab News that he wished he could be back in his old country to see the pope.
“Since we are in the diaspora, we wish we were in Iraq to witness the decrees,” he said.
Another member of the congregation, Wameedh Tozy, said: “It will be a great dialogue between religions. It is an open message that we all believe in God and practice religions freely and in one brotherly relationship.”
The pope’s visit to Our Lady of Salvation Church, the same church in Baghdad where 58 people were killed in a horrific suicide attack, will have added significance for the community in California. There is a memorial for the victims of the 2010 massacre inside the church in El Cajon.
“Of course we would like to announce that we have a shrine for the church of the martyrs,” Al-Shaikh, who has met Pope Francis, said.