World Gift for Francis, handmade shawl tells story of Iraq's Christians
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Pulling golden thread with her frail fingers, elderly Christian Karjiya Baqtar has embroidered a precious prayer shawl to gift the most cherished visitor to her Iraqi hometown -- Pope Francis.
Francis will visit the northern town of Qaraqosh, ravaged in 2014 by the Islamic State jihadist group, on the third day of his history-making trip to Iraq.
Francis prepares first-ever papal visit to Iraq
Pope Francis is to start the first-ever papal visit to Iraq on Friday, an act of solidarity with an ancient but dwindling Christian community and a symbolic outreach to Muslims. At the time, Pope Francis endorsed military action against IS and considered visiting northern Iraq in solidarity with Christians there. Video: Iraqi Christians, decimated by Islamist violence, prepare for pope's visit (Reuters) Your browser does not support this video That trip never materialised, but Francis has kept a close eye on Iraq, condemning the killing of unarmed protesters during mass anti-government rallies from 2019.
Baqtar, a petite woman with veiny hands and wisps of hair gently brushed back from her face, has worked with other Christians in Qaraqosh for two months on the stole vestment.
The two-metre (6.5-foot) stole is entirely locally produced -- from the checkered red and black fabric to the Syriac prayers hand-stitched along its edges in glimmering gold.
It was designed by Ammar Yaqo, the priest at the Al-Tahera Church in Qaraqosh.
"Khaya Baqtar wove the fabric, while Karjiya and Miss Adhraa Daaboul embroidered it," Yaqo told AFP proudly.
The "Our Father" and "Hail Mary" prayers are carefully stitched on either side in Syriac, a dialect of the language spoken by Jesus Christ and still used in Qaraqosh.
"This is the first time this kind of stole has been produced in Qaraqosh, and it represents the heritage of this town," said Yaqo.
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Also known as Bakhdida and Hamdaniya, Qaraqosh has a long pre-Christian history and is also one of Iraq's oldest Christian towns.
It was largely destroyed in 2014 when the Islamic State group swept through the surrounding province of Nineveh, but its residents have trickled back since 2017 and slowly worked at rebuilding their hometown.
Video: 'I come as a pilgrim,' pope tells people of Iraq (NBC News)
The security situation remains tense, with state-sponsored armed groups deployed in large numbers in nearby plains.
- 'Everything is local' -
The prayer stole features Christian emblems, including grapes used for wine -- which for Catholics represents the blood of Jesus -- and wheat for bread, or his body.
There are Iraqi emblems, including date fronds, for which the country is well-known, and even symbols of Qaraqosh.
"It features three crosses, which were designed to look like the crosses atop the Al-Tahera Church in the town, which was smashed by IS," Yaqo said.
Pope says he will visit Iraq as 'pilgrim of peace'
On the eve of his historic trip to Iraq, Pope Francis paid tribute Thursday to those who have suffered from years of violence, saying he goes there as a "pilgrim of peace". Francis also paid tribute to the minority Yazidi community, "who have suffered so much".In a video message, the 84-year-old offered his hand to "brothers and sisters of other religions", but also highlighted the heavy toll paid by Iraq's Christian communities, saying there had been "too many martyrs".
Christians in Qaraqosh have rehabilitated the church but opted to leave the cross as it is, as a memento of the jihadist onslaught they survived.
"The fabric, the embroidery, everything about this stole is local," Yaqo added.
"It was made specifically for the Pope and will be presented to him during the mass."
It's not the only handmade garment the Pope will be gifted on this trip.
Kurdish Muslim designer Shanaz Jamal has stitched an ornate cross, inlaid with semi-precious turquoise and emerald stones, onto a burgundy fabric.
In 2019, Jamal sewed interfaith symbols onto a white ecclesiastical cloak using 3,000 beads, including the same bright stones.
The 40-year-old artist told AFP at the time that she hoped her artwork would be offered to Pope Francis as a "symbol of peace and harmony in the world".
Just a few months later, President Barham Saleh formally invited the pontiff to visit Iraq, saying it could help heal the country's scars after years of "strife."
Pope's Iraq Trip Must Highlight Precarious Situation of Assyrian Christians | Opinion .
Rather than highlight the plight of Assyrians and other Christian groups in the Middle East, Pope Francis' visit may end up worsening their situation. If this ongoing ethnic cleansing of Assyrians and other minorities from Iraq continues under a veneer of respectability, this will ultimately lead to their complete erasure from their ancestral homeland, as was the case with the Jews of Iraq.Bradley Martin is the executive director for the Near East Center for Strategic Studies.The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.