The archbishop of Lyon, France, and a congregation of French Christians visited the Kurdish city of Erbil, Iraq, on Sunday to recreate the famed Lyonnaise Festival of Lights–the feast of the Immaculate Conception–for thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees fleeing the horrors of Islamic State (ISIS) terrorism.
Crux, a Catholic news outlet, traveled with Cardinal Philippe Barbarin and a group of intrepid French cohorts who sought to bring the closeness of the Catholic church to Christians struggling to survive after being banished from their homelands in northern Iraq. Barbarin explained that, rather than send a video message or letter, he believed that a personal appearance would be a more dramatic statement showing solidarity to Christians who want to keep Iraq–a longtime cradle of Christianity–open and safe for Christians.
In addition to staging a replica of the famed Festival of Lights in Erbil, Barbarin’s group visited the Ankawa refugee camp, mostly populated by Christians who fled Mosul and other Islamic State-inhabited areas. “We didn’t want to simply send a message to the Iraqi Christians saying, ‘We’re praying for you’–we wanted to be daring, bold, and travel to Iraq to make them part of our own celebration,” Barbarin explained to the outlet.
The Festival of Lights is one of the biggest Christian traditions in France. The streets of the city are lined with extravagant, light-based art displays, as well as multiple performances from artists and even acrobats. The installations remain up for four days, and millions are expected to flood the city for the celebration.
The displays in Erbil were significantly more modest, though nonetheless representative of the occasion. Children were given candles, and large groups of Christians were organized to pray and celebrate together (video below in French):
Attendants were also shown a video message from Pope Francis, calling for Christians to remain in the Middle East and for international help to prevent the continued exile from the region at the hands of jihadist terrorists. This has become one of the Pope’s most prominent messages in multiple addresses. “Your resistance is martyrdom,” Pope Francis said in his message. “It is dew that brings fruitfulness. Please, pray for me. May the Lord bless you and Our Lady protect you.” The Pope also mentioned the suffering of Yazidi people, forced out of their homes in Nineveh: “Because of an extremist, fundamentalist group, entire communities, especially Christians and Yazidi, have suffered and continue to suffer inhuman violence because of their religious and ethnic identity.”