Beyond the Apocalypse: Starting again from Baghdad

Antonio Spadaro, SJ

 Antonio Spadaro, SJ / Pope Francis / Published Date:1 February 2021/Last Updated Date:16 March 2021

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Accepting the invitation from Baghdad and the local Catholic Church, Pope Francis will make an Apostolic Journey to Iraq from March 5 to 8, 2021, visiting Baghdad, on the plain of Ur, which is linked to the memory of Abraham, the city of Erbil, as well as Mosul and Qaraqosh on the plain of Nineveh. Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See Press Office, announced this much-desired trip by Francis on December 7. He added that the program of the trip “will take into account the evolution of the global health emergency.”

Not forgetting the Covid-19 pandemic, indeed fully aware of its grip, Francis will make his first trip after a 15-month pause. But that is not the news.

A virus has destroyed human barriers, crossing them without asking for permission, breaking down borders and customs, revealing a vulnerable humanity. The pontiff, keeping his gaze fixed on the world, decided that this was the time to plan a trip to Iraq. Why? The term “Covid-19” has become the mirror of a pervasive virus that is very much present in our hearts, a metaphor that reveals a sick world. We refer to a sort of pandemic of the spirit and social relations. The coronavirus has become its symbol and image.

La Civilta Cattolica

In the context of this spiritual health emergency, the journey to Iraq must be seen as the Church taking up its mission as a “field hospital.” The ideal place to pitch the tent of this hospital is the plain of Nineveh, which had been occupied by the self-styled Islamic State between 2014 and 2017, a plain which includes the site of the Chaldean city of Ur, the place of origin of the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

On January 25, 2020, Francis received Iraqi President Barham Salih and spoke of “fostering stability and the process of reconstruction, encouraging the path of dialogue and the search for appropriate solutions in favor of the citizens and with respect for national sovereignty.” The pope gave the president a peace medallion depicting a revitalized desert, that is, a desolate wasteland that has  become a garden. As the gifts were being exchanged he expressed his own wish: that the President of Iraq would bring him “an identity card” attesting to “Pope Francis, son of the son of the son of the son… of Abraham,” referring to the father of the three monotheistic religions.

This is the point: the pontiff has identified in these months of lockdown and global health crisis a clear focal point of his mission: human fraternity, towards which other religions can offer a “valuable contribution” (cf. Fratelli Tutti [FT], Nos. 271-287). That is why he decided to start again from Baghdad. A thread binds St. Peter’s Square – where, in the midst of the pandemic, on March 27 we saw Francis praying alone for the world – and the cities of Mesopotamia, the cradle of ancient civilization, desecrated by the violence of the Islamic State, by regional and international conflicts, by the persecution of Christians, by the mass exodus of many Iraqis in search of a better life.

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We know that Francis has been thinking of visiting Iraq for some time. He had spoken about it on June 10, 2019, during an audience granted to the Reunion of Aid Agencies for the Oriental Churches: “An insistent thought accompanies me in thinking about Iraq, that it may look ahead through the peaceful and shared participation in the construction of the common good of all the components of society, including the religious ones, and not fall back into tensions that come from the never dormant conflicts of regional powers.”

Baghad, with the weight of its caliphal past reverberating in today’s world as a junction of imperialisms, an epicenter of apocalyptic visions tending to accelerate the end of time, embracing the violent philosophy of Hobbes (homo homini lupus), in a dialectic between millenary tensions and militant mobilization. Francis’ challenge has a strong “political” value, because it overturns the logic of the apocalypse that fights against the world, because it believes that the world is the opposite of God, that is, an idol, and therefore to be destroyed as soon as possible to accelerate the end of time. It is a challenge to those who find no alternative to being martyrs or apostates. No. There is another option, the Gospel one: to be brothers and sisters.

“Enough violence, enough war, enough conflicts. The pope’s trip to Iraq will be a cry of fraternity, a yearning for harmony, peace and solidarity”: in these words from Baghdad the Chaldean Patriarch, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, commented enthusiastically on the news. “Fraternity and harmonious coexistence,” this is the hope, the cardinal repeated. He cited the prophet Ezekiel, who lived in Babylon, speaking to the Jews who, at that time, lived outside their lands, as discouraged exiles: “Our bones have dried up, our hope has vanished, we are lost,” they said. Then Ezekiel prophesied: “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezek 37:5-6).

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We set out again from Baghdad, then, to see dried bones become vital and infused with spirit. The news of the trip closed 2020 and opened 2021 in hope. Let us dream, we could say, echoing the title of a volume that the pontiff wrote in conversation with Austin Ivereigh. In it he said: “The good news is that an Ark awaits us to carry us to a new tomorrow. Covid-19 is our Noah moment, as long as we can find our way to the Ark of the ties that unite us, ties of love, and of a common belonging.” We must return to the place of origin of Noah’s ark, to Mesopotamia. And the pope will do so physically. The ark will reappear in the place where it was conceived to thaw the frozen sea of indifference.

Francis from here can evoke a new humanism, which in Fratelli Tutti he describes thus: “Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all!” (FT 8).