Iraqi Americans across metro Detroit are hoping that Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq that started Friday?can help bring peace to their native land after decades of war and conflict.

  With more than 90,000 residents of Iraqi descent, Michigan has one of the largest Iraqi communities outside the Middle East, many of them Chaldeans who share the pope’s Catholic faith.?Bishop Francis Kalabat of Southfield, who heads the Chaldean Diocese in Michigan and the eastern half of the U.S., is in Iraq to meet with the pope and help with a Mass the pope is?expected to attend, said local Chaldean leaders.

  ”It carries a beautiful message,” said the Rev.?Fawaz Kako, pastor of St. George Chaldean Church in Shelby Township and?vicar general of the?Chaldean Diocese, formally known as St. Thomas the Apostle USA.?”It’s a message of solidarity to a country wounded by war and divisions.?…?I hope it will be part of the healing that this country needs.”

  The visit by Pope Francis is believed to be the first time the Catholic pope has been to?Iraq and the first time he has participated in a Chaldean rite Mass. On Friday, he visited?the Sayidat al-Nejat (Our Lady of Salvation) Cathedral, in Baghdad, where, in?2010, terrorists tied to al-Qaida shot dead 58 people inside the church.?

  ”The religious, cultural and ethnic diversity that has been a hallmark of Iraqi society for millennia is a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to eliminate,” Pope Francis?said.?”Iraq today is called to show everyone, especially in the Middle East, that diversity, instead of giving rise to conflict, should lead to harmonious cooperation in the life of society.”

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  The minority Christian?population in Iraq?has decreased sharply since the U.S. invasion in 2003, and many are hoping the papal visit can bring more attention to their plight.?

  ”It’s going to raise awareness about those victims of genocide,” said Martin Manna, president?of the Chaldean Community Foundation?in Sterling Heights and Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce.?”Christians and others have really been victims of so much violence and discrimination and intimidation.”

  Father Nazeer Dako arranges a Vatican flag to welcome Pope Francis at St. Joseph's Chaldean Church ahead of the Pope's visit, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, March 2, 2021.

  In Michigan, 10?Chaldean Catholic churches are part of the Chaldean diocese. There are several other Syriac Catholic, Assyrian Christian and other Iraqi Christian churches in Michigan.

  Metro Detroit also has a sizable Iraqi American Shia Muslim population in Dearborn and nearby cities. There are several Shia mosques with Iraqi congregations or other mosques led by clerics with roots in Iraq.

  Pope Francis is expected to meet this weekend in the city of Najaf with Grand Ayatollah Sistani, one of the top Shia clerics, someone who is followed by many Shias, especially Iraqi and Lebanese, in Michigan.?

  Bishop Francis Kalabat at the Chaldean Community Foundation in Sterling Heights in July.

  The pope’s planned meeting with Sistani in Najafi “is a historic one by all standards,” said Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini, a prominent?Shia leader in the U.S. of Iraqi descent who leads the Islamic Institute of America in Dearborn Heights. “It’s the first time a Catholic pope visits the seat of the oldest Shia learning center, over 1,000 years old, and meets with the highest Shia authority in the world. … One striking resemblance between the pope and the Ayatollah is that both lead a very simple and ascetic lifestyle and are very close to the underprivileged and the poor.”

  Al-Qazwini said that Sistani played a “crucial role … in protecting the Christian community in Iraq during its civil war.”

  Sistani “is known for being vocal not only in condemning atrocities against minorities including Christians, but also for inviting his Shia?followers to embrace their Christian compatriots who were displaced by ISIS and offer them food and shelter,” Al-Qazwini said.?

  Census data from 2018 shows that in Michigan, there are 55,000 Iraqi Americans?who identify as Assyrian, Syriac, or Chaldean, ethnic groups who are generally Christian.?In addition, 36,000 people in Michigan have Iraqi ancestry.?

  Iraqis are the largest Middle Eastern group in Michigan.

  In addition to Chaldeans and Shias, Michigan has a smaller population of Iraqi Sunnis, Kurds, Yazidis, Mandeans?and other groups with roots in Iraq. Over the years, they have held rallies and events over tensions in Iraq, with differing?views over the war and conflicts.?

  Pope Francis is also planning to visit the city of Ur, where Abraham, seen as the father of Judaism, Christianity?and Islam, once lived.?

  Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn.

  ”It’s about time to to build a holy bridge between the children of Abraham,” said Imam Husham Al-Husainy, an immigrant from Iraq who leads the Karbalaa Islamic Education Center in Dearborn, a mosque with a predominantly Iraqi American congregation. “The world is so thirsty for peace. The meeting between the pope and Ayatollah Sistani will kill any hope of ISIS. I think the world will be a much better and safer place after this visit.”

  Al-Husainy added that Christians “are an essential part” of Iraq.?

  Jonathan Francis, an official with the Chaldean diocese, said that the papal visit “is kind of a little injection of hope and confidence” for an Iraqi Catholic community that is dwindling.?

  Even before the rise of ISIS, minorities in Iraq were suffering. But after the terrorist group took over, it became worse. Many in Michigan have roots in areas that ISIS seized.?

  ”This is a country that has seen a lot of suffering and pain,” said Kako of the Chaldean diocese. The pope’s visit “is something happy because that country has not seen any happiness, to be honest.”

  In a statement Thursday, Archbishop Allen Vigneron, who heads the Archdiocese of Detroit, which is separate from the Chaldean?diocese, said that “as archbishop of Detroit, I pray in a particular way that the Holy Father’s trip will serve as a source of encouragement to our brothers and sisters in Christ, the tens of thousands of Chaldean Catholics in southeast Michigan.”

  Vigneron said that the Pope’s visit is?”in solidarity with all Chaldeans and other Iraqi Christians who are confronted with persecutions, wars, immigration?and other significant hardships. Let us pray together for the Holy Father’s safety and success, that his trip will bear fruit and advance efforts toward peace, human dignity?and religious liberty for all.”

  The Associated Press contributed to this report.?

  Contact Niraj Warikoo: nwarikoo@freepress.com or 313-223-4792. Twitter @nwarikoo.