Christians in Iraq will take part in an 80-mile 'peace walk' during Holy Week to urge an end to violence in the countryand around the Middle East.
The walk, which will begin on Palm Sunday in Irbil, is being supported by the Chaldean Catholic patriarch, Louis Sako of Baghdad, who said: 'Peace must be achieved by us [religious leaders] as well as politicians, through courageous initiatives and responsible decisions.'
Some 100 people, Iraqis and foreigners, are expected to participate in the march, which will begin on Palm Sunday on April 9 with a Mass in Irbil, the patriarch told Catholic News Service (CNS) by telephone.
'They will walk from Irbil to Alqosh in the Ninevah Plain, needing one week or more because the journey is very long, some [140 kilometres] 87 miles,' he added. 'I will join them in a village near Alqosh on Holy Thursday,' on April 13.
The march represents a 'great occasion for unity,' he said. 'Another group from Lyon, France, will help make the Way of the Cross using as the stations villages from Telaskov to Bakova, a walk of two to three hours,' Patriarch Sako told CNS.
This peace initiative is aimed at demonstrating the bond among Iraqi communities and churches around the world during recent years of suffering and persecution.
These Christian towns which were once flourishing and have formed the bedrock of centuries of Christian history, were recently liberated from the brutal control of so-called Islamic State militants.
Telaskov translates as 'Bishop's Hill' and was a thriving, modern town of 11,000 before the ISIS takeover in 2014 when militants forced Christians to flee.
Last September, representatives of the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Irbil told the US Congress that they had received no UN or US government-administered humanitarian aid for 70,000 Christian or Yezidi survivors of what has been now designated as a genocide against them and other Iraqi minorities, carried out by ISIS since 2014.
Before the 2003 war that toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Christian population was 1.4 million. It is now estimated at only 250,000 people.
'At the moment, we are going through the tunnel, and we need to work hard and pray without ceasing for peace in our country and the region and for the safe return of the forcibly displaced people to their homes and properties,' Patriarch Sako said in a recent Lenten address.
He urged the faithful 'to rely on wisdom and patience and to stay united together on the land where we were born [and have] lived for 1,400 years together with Muslims, sharing one civilisation'.
This Easter, Patriarch Sako said he hopes for 'a real resurrection, a quick return of displaced to their homes, and a restoration of peace at our churches, country and the whole world'.