Fraternity is Stronger Than Fratricide: Pope Francis’ Apostolic Journey to Iraq

Antonio Spadaro, SJ

 Antonio Spadaro, SJ / Pope Francis / Published Date:19 March 2021/Last Updated Date:12 September 2021

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At 7:30 a.m. on March 5, 2021, an Alitalia flight carrying Pope Francis, members of his entourage and journalists took off for Baghdad, where it landed at 2 p.m. local time.

During the General Audience of March 3, on the eve of his departure, the pontiff had said: “For a long time I have wanted to meet those people who have suffered so much; to meet that martyred Church in the land of Abraham. Together with the other religious leaders, we shall also take another step forward in fraternity among believers.” He concluded: “The Iraqi people are waiting for us,” and “one cannot disappoint a people a second time.”

In fact, Francis’ 33rd apostolic journey fulfilled a desire that had already been expressed by Saint John Paul II. In his Jubilee pilgrimages of 2000, Pope Wojtyła went first to Sinai, and the following month to the Holy Land, visiting  Mount Nebo and Jerusalem. His desire was to combine these two pilgrimages together with the one to Ur of the Chaldeans, in Iraq. Preparations for the trip had been completed  by December 1999, but it was not possible to go. The United States, led by Bill Clinton, was against it, fearing that the pope’s presence would strengthen Saddam Hussein. In the end Saddam himself was against the idea.

Pope John Paul II then raised his voice against the second Western military expedition to the country, the 2003 “lightning war,” which ended with the overthrow of Saddam’s government. But he was not heard. Since then the country has plunged into a spiral of violence further aggravated by the fundamentalist group “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” (IS), giving rise to turmoil in which even thinking about a pope’s visit would seem a mirage.

La Civilta Cattolica

Geopolitical importance of the visit and tensions in today’s Iraq

The plans that intertwine in the itinerary Francis followed are multiple and can be understood only if one evaluates Iraq’s state today, and also its importance in the history of humanity, as well as of religions.[1] Considered by some the locale of the biblical Eden, it is a land of strong tensions and open wounds, one of those typical places that Francis wants to touch with his own hands by a presence that is a testimony and a healing gesture. The fertility of the land watered by the two great rivers that cross it, the Tigris and the Euphrates, and the oil riches have been the source of great blessings, wars and sufferings, which our journal has constantly reported.

Mesopotamia was the cradle of three great ancient civilizations: the Sumerians, the Babylonians and the Assyrians. From here came the first written codification of laws, the Hammurabi Code. Here was born the faith of Abraham. Here some prophets preached, and several,: Ezekiel, Jonah, Naum, are thought to be buried there. Here flourished the first evangelization attributed to the apostle Thomas, and here developed the Church of the East, which extended its fruitful presence along the Persian Gulf to India, Afghanistan and ancient China. Here Islam made one of its first conquests and experienced the division between Sunnis and Shiites.[2] Here were born great theological works, great saints, sacred writers and heresies. Part of the Ottoman Empire and, after the collapse of the latter, entrusted in 1920 by the League of Nations to British administration by the Treaty of Sèvres,[3] Iraq became an independent monarchy in 1932 and a Republic on July 14, 1958.

This land is also steeped in the blood of countless recent conflicts, most notably the two Gulf Wars in 1991 and 2003, and has a history that weighs heavily on the shoulders of the people who inhabit it today. After little more than a year, a time in which it had been subject to a provisional coalition authority, in 2004 Iraq became an independent and sovereign state once again, and on October 15, 2005, a referendum approved the new constitution, which established a federal parliamentary state in which a strong autonomy is granted to local governorates (i.e. regional governments). The Constitution states that “the state shall guarantee the protection of the individual from intellectual, political and religious coercion” and “every individual shall enjoy freedom of intellect, conscience and faith” (Articles 37/2 and 42).

The slow and difficult process of normalization in the country came to an abrupt halt in 2014 with the rise of the so-called “Islamic State.” Then-Premier Haydar al-‘Abadi officially declared the war against this group and declared victory on December 9, 2017.

Today, the country’s political stability is increasingly fragile with the resumption of initiatives by Islamic State militias and several attacks against civilians, such as the January 21, 2021, attack on a market in Baghdad, which left 35 people dead and 100 injured, and the interference of foreign powers, such as Turkey – responsible in recent months for several incursions into Iraqi territory against the Kurds – and Iran. With the souring of relations between Teheran and the United States, especially after the killing, on January 3, 2020, of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani at Baghdad international airport, the activism of pro-Iranian militias in the country has increased.[4]

In addition, the difficult economic conditions and lack of social and employment prospects for young people. According to International Monetary Fund estimates, Iraq’s economy will decline by 11 percent this year alone, with those living in poverty bordering on 40 percent.

The presence of Christians and their flight

The weight of the conflicts has also fallen on the shoulders of Christians – communities that have survived centuries of adaptation – who have tried to cope with uneasy coexistence, authoritarian pressures, discrimination and even persecution and whose presence over the last 100 years has dramatically decreased.

Let us recall that the Christian presence in Mesopotamia goes back to the very origins of Christianity, as the Acts of the Apostles testifies. According to tradition, in fact, Christianity was spread in these lands in the first century by the preaching of Saint Thomas the Apostle and his disciples, and extended to eastern Asia. Today, Christians are divided today between Chaldeans, Syrians, Armenians, Latins, Melkites, Orthodox and Protestants.

On the eve of the second Gulf War, Christians in Iraq were estimated at between 1 and 1.4 million (6 percent of the population). Since then, their presence has declined dramatically to about 1.5 percent, or between 300,000 and 400,000 people, according to the most recent estimates. The occupation by IS of the Plain of Nineveh, the historical cradle of Mesopotamian Christianity, effectively emptied this region of its Christian presence. More than 100,000 Christians were forced to leave their homes along with other persecuted minorities, such as the Yazidis. Many of these families found refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. More than 60 churches were damaged or destroyed.

The great effort of solidarity made by the international Catholic community has allowed the return of more than 45 percent of the families originally residing in the Nineveh Plain who had been driven out by Islamist violence. However, difficulties and fear remain, discouraging the return of many people. Among the major causes of fear are the violent activity of local militias and the possibility of the return of the Islamic State.

For this reason, rebuilding trust is fundamental and the creation of “Christian enclaves” must be excluded, as must ethnic sectarianism[5]: “Christians, reinvigorated in the faith, must not behave like a minority striving to catch up with the history that has apparently left them behind, but must start again from the concept of a common homeland, of citizenship without connotations and from the Charter of Human Rights, from the collective good and from a modern and rational organization.”[6]

Advocating a new citizenship: the speech to the authorities

On his arrival in Baghdad and after the reception and greetings of the Prime Minister, Pope Francis went to the Presidential Palace for the official welcoming ceremony led by the President of the Republic, Barham Ahmed Salih Qassim. After a private discussion and the exchange of gifts, the meeting took place with political and religious authorities, the diplomatic corps, business executives and representatives of society and culture, in all about 150 people.

The president, in his greeting, appreciated “the historical, religious and human dimension” of Francis’ visit. He continued: “The Iraqis express their pride in your presence, Your Holiness, as their great and dear guest, despite the recommendations to postpone the visit because of the exceptional circumstances the world is going through with the epidemic, and despite the difficult conditions our wounded country faces. Overcoming all these circumstances actually doubles the value of the visit in the view of Iraqis.”
After the president’s greeting, the pope delivered his speech, in which he defined Iraq as  a “cradle of civilization closely linked through the Patriarch Abraham and a number of the Prophets to the history of salvation and to the great religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.” These opening words set the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, signed in Abu Dhabi[7] on February 4, 2019 as a clear reference, with the hope that we can “journey together as brothers and sisters” in the conviction that “authentic teachings of religions invite us to remain rooted in the values of peace” and also “of mutual understanding, human fraternity and harmonious coexistence.” This is the core of the message that Francis wanted to deliver to the country: to be united, “to overcome rivalries and oppositions,” considering “religious, cultural and ethnic diversity, which has characterized Iraqi society for millennia,” as a “valuable resource” that requires a “healthy pluralism.”

This speech clearly indicated two paths to building a healthy Iraqi civil society. The first is internal: citizenship. “May room be made,” Francis appealed, “for all those citizens who seek to cooperate in building up this country through dialogue and through frank, sincere and constructive discussion, citizens committed to reconciliation and prepared, for the common good, to set aside their own interests. Iraq has sought in these years to lay the foundations for a democratic society. For this, it is essential to ensure the participation of all political, social and religious groups and to guarantee the fundamental rights of all citizens. May no one be considered a second-class citizen.”

The second is external to Iraq: the commitment of the international community. This has a “decisive role to play in the promotion of peace in this land and in the Middle East as a whole.” The challenges “call for cooperation on a global scale in order to address, among other things, the economic inequalities and regional tensions that threaten the stability of these lands […] without imposing political and ideological interests.” In this sense, commitment is needed for reconstruction and assistance to refugees and internally displaced persons. We are, therefore, at the opposite pole to the colonialist vision that has dominated the evaluation of what the Middle East should be. There is no “civilizing mission” involved, but the desire that Iraq can be helped to be itself and to self-determine in as harmonious a way as possible.

The Churches of Iraq, colored threads of a single carpet

The pope then left the palace around 4:15 p.m. to go to the Cathedral of Sayidat al-Nejat (Our Lady of Salvation), seat of the Syro-Catholic Archeparchy of Baghdad, one of the largest churches in the city. It has been the target of two terrorist attacks, one of which, on October 31, 2010, was carried out by the self-styled “Islamic State,” in which 48 people died – including two priests – and about 70 were wounded. The church, designed by Polish architect Kafka in a contemporary style, represents a ship supporting believers, like the boat that carried Jesus and his disciples in the storm. After the 2010 attack, the church was renovated, and a memorial was erected for the victims.

About one hundred people, including bishops, priests, religious, seminarians and catechists, gathered in the cathedral.[8] The Patriarch, Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, greeting the pontiff, spoke of a “courageous visit,” which “spurs us to continue in life with faith and constancy, to consolidate our mutual fraternal relations among Christians and with our Muslim compatriots, whom we love as brothers.”

After the greetings, the pope delivered a speech in which he recalled first of all the “uninterrupted presence of the Church in these lands since the earliest times,” but also with an awareness of the difficulties, which have “led to internal displacements and the migration of many, especially Christians, to other parts of the world.” It is necessary to overcome the “virus of discouragement” with the “vaccine” of “hope,” he said.

The pontiff then proposed “the familiar image of a carpet. The different Churches present in Iraq, each with its age-old historical, liturgical and spiritual patrimony, are like so many individual colored threads that, woven together, make up a single beautiful carpet, one that displays not only our fraternity but points also to its source. For God himself is the artist who imagined this carpet, patiently wove it and carefully mends it, desiring us ever to remain closely knit as his sons and daughters.”

Najaf: the pope in the Shiite holy city

On Saturday at 7:45 a.m., the Iraqi Airways flight with the pope onboard took off from Baghdad for Najaf, where he was welcomed by the governor. Najaf is a city in central Iraq, located about 160 km south of Baghdad. Iraq’s main Shiite religious center, it is a pilgrimage destination for Shiites from around the world because it houses the tomb of one of Islam’s most revered figures, Ali ibn Abi Talib, also known as Imām ʿAlī, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law and the first Imam of the Shiites.

After landing, the pope went to the residence of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, which is located inside the mosque of Imām ʿAlī, walking through the alleys to access it. The interpretation of Islamic sources followed by al-Sistani preaches the abstention of religious authorities from direct political activity; in this sense it contrasts with the interpretation of Ayatollah Khomeini followed in Iran.[9] In 2004, al-Sistani supported free elections in Iraq, thus making an important contribution to the planning of the first democratic government in the country, while in 2014 he called on Iraqis to unite to fight against the self-styled “Islamic State.”

After the U.S.-led military intervention that brought down the Baathist regime in 2003, a fatwa proclaimed by Ayatollah al-Sistani had called on all Shiite Muslims to protect and not mistreat members of minority faith communities, including Christians, who should not be identified as “fifth columns” of foreign military forces.[10] In the places of the papal visit many welcome posters appeared with the images of Francis and al-Sistani and with a famous saying of the Imām ʿAlī: “People are of two types: either they are your brothers in faith or your equals in humanity.”

From the few images we have of the meeting, we can note the austerity of the Shiite leader’s home: a bare room with two long, narrow sofas. In this atmosphere the conversation was very cordial: never has the Ayatollah received heads of state and never stood up, while in this case he did several times. The meeting lasted about 45 minutes, and the two leaders – as reported in their respective communiqués – spoke of the importance of collaboration between religious communities and the consolidation of the values of harmony, peaceful coexistence and human solidarity, based on the promotion of rights and mutual respect between the followers of different religions and intellectual tendencies. And this is so that we, they declared, can contribute to the good of the country and all humanity. Francis in his general audience on March 10 described the meeting as “unforgettable.” Mohammad Ali Abtahi, vice president of Iran during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, in a tweet called the meeting “one of the historical turning points of divine religions.”[11]

Geopolitical implications: a paradigm shift

Francis’ trip turns the spotlight on Najaf, the Shiite “holy city” and opens an important perspective in favor of intra-Islamic dialogue, proposing the relevance of Abraham, the patriarch shared by the three monotheisms, to reconciliation.

During the press conference on the flight back to Rome, Francis recalled, regarding Islam and its internal tensions, “Let’s think about us Christians, the Thirty Years War, St. Bartholomew’s Day, to give an example. Let’s think about that. How the mentality changes among us.” The parallel reference to the tensions in Christianity between Catholics and Protestants in the 17th century and those in Islam is interesting. At that time the Thirty Years War was due to the desire of the German princes to put a brake on the aspirations of the new Habsburg emperor who, with Spanish help, wanted to deprive them of the right to determine the religion of their territories (cuius regio eius religio). It ended with the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which inaugurated a new international order, which provided that the states recognized each other as states, beyond the faith of their sovereigns. This put an end to the long period of religious wars, so that the subsequent conflicts in Europe were exclusively political in nature. The message of the visit to al-Sistani is the peaceful recognition of a “plural” Islam, and more generally of states as pluralists bodies, committed to guarantee citizenship to all. Prime Minister al-Kadhimi has received the message and proclaimed March 6 as the national day of tolerance and coexistence.

The meeting that the pope hopes for is not – as in other agreements – focused on being united against someone. The peace that Najaf – and immediately afterward Ur, as we shall see – suggests is not “against” and is not binary (good versus bad), but is deeply respectful and inclusive.

This is all a radical paradigm shift with respect to the life of a country that has experienced 40 years of suffering and struggle, but also with respect to wider issues. In fact, Francis insinuates himself into the established narratives and geopolitical strategies that see all the major world players active in this land: the United States and Russia, but also France and the United Kingdom (Christians), Saudi Arabia and Turkey (Sunnis), Iran and pro-Iranian militias (Shiites), and now China and rejects them.

The first is the established narrative that has done so much harm: Christians are the fifth column of the West, like the Shiites of Iraq and the Sunnis of Saudi Arabia.

The second is the religious narrative of a permanent conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, with the prevalence, in the Shiite household, of Khomeini-brand theocratic Shiism: many today have discovered that Shiism is plural, and there is a traditional one, which is precisely that of al-Sistani.

The third is the complex geopolitical vision that has Baghdad as its focus, nourished by apocalyptic ideology.[12] In fact, the interests of political Islam – both Sunni and Shiite – are intertwined at the expense of religion, and indeed using it.

In his welcome speech, the Iraqi President summarized well the meaning of the pontiff’s visit, launching the proposal of a “permanent symposium for dialogue, under the supervision of delegates from the Vatican, Najaf, al-Azhar, Zaytuna and the main religious centers that research common and multifaceted history in the light of sacred objects and the cuneiform heritage.”

Citing Najaf and al-Azhar, along with the Holy See, the president called for a harmony between Sunni and Shiite Islam that disrupts established narratives and geopolitics. This is a vital process of which the pope has already become an enzyme with his own presence on Iraqi soil. This is a presence that St. John Paul II had not been able to guarantee because of overlapping vetoes, but which would have perhaps spared that tormented land much bloodshed. It is necessary, however, to clarify that the geopolitical reading of Francis’ trip makes sense only if one considers the moral and spiritual authority of the pontiff, the only one capable of putting together the pieces of a very complex puzzle.

Ur, building site of the future: the memory of Abraham and the wisdom of the Gospel

At the end of the meeting with the Shiite leader, the pope went to the airport to transfer to the airport of Nassiriya and from there to Ur of the Chaldeans, which was the capital of an Empire – the Sumerian one – that at the end of the third millennium B.C. dominated all of Mesopotamia.

Ur’s position between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers facilitated its commercial development and political dominance. It is the city from where Terah, father of Abraham, took his “son Abram and his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; when they came to Haran, they settled there” (Gen 11:31).

On January 25, 2020, Francis had received the Iraqi President, Barham Salih, and on that occasion, at the very moment of the exchange of gifts, he had expressed his desire that the President of Iraq bring him “an identity card” attesting to “Pope Francis son of the son of the son of the son… of Abraham.” Somehow with this visit the pope received such an identity card and invited the Iraqis to ask for it symbolically.[13]

In fact, an inter-religious meeting was held in Ur with readings from the Bible and the Koran as well as the listening to testimonies. The religions professed on Iraqi soil were represented.[14] The sunny desert plain, with a ziggurat in the background and excavations of ancient sites, was the setting for an event of great spiritual intensity. Among the testimonies was that of a woman of the Saba-Mandean religion who spoke of the unity of the Iraqi people: “Our blood has mixed, together we have experienced the bitterness of the embargo, we have the same identity.” She continued: “His Holiness’ visit to Iraq means that Mesopotamia is still respected and appreciated. His visit means a triumph of virtue, it is a symbol of appreciation for Iraqis.”

The pope gave a speech and recited with others the “Prayer of the Children of Abraham.” His speech at Ur was one of the highlights of the trip, and deserves further reflection. Francis reiterated the centrality of the patriarch Abraham. “This blessed place,” he said, “brings us back to our origins, to the sources of God’s work, to the birth of our religions.” Hence the appeal to look up. “God asked Abraham to raise his eyes to heaven and to count its stars (cf. Gen 15:5). In those stars, he saw the promise of his descendants; he saw us. Today we, Jews, Christians and Muslims, together with our brothers and sisters of other religions, honor our father Abraham by doing as he did: we look up to heaven and we journey on earth.” This “looking up to heaven,” where “the stars shine together,” means perceiving a “message of unity”: “The Most High above us invites us never to separate ourselves from our neighbors. The Otherness of God points us toward others, to our brothers and sisters.” For this reason, terrorism and hatred cannot be combined with religion: “terrorism abuses religion.”

The pope expressed the awareness that even in the dark moments of terror “stars have shone.” “I think,” he said, “of the young Muslim volunteers of Mosul, who helped restore churches and monasteries, building fraternal friendships on the rubble of hatred, and of Christians and Muslims who today are restoring mosques and churches together.” From Ur, therefore, comes a strong message of unity, the call to “pull together in the same direction,” because isolating oneself leads only to the building of walls.

But there is also an invitation to “walk on the earth,” after having looked at heaven. Each one must “go out,” as did Abraham, who, called by God, “had to leave land, house and kinship. Yet by giving up his own family, he became the father of a family of peoples.” Abraham becomes a model of a society, of a way of doing politics, of a commitment to rebuild a country. It is an invitation to “leave behind those ties and attachments” that close us in “our groups” and prevent us “from seeing in others our brothers and sisters.” “From where can the journey of peace begin?” the pope asked himself. His answer clearly shows the way: “From the decision not to have enemies. Anyone with the courage to look at the stars, anyone who believes in God, has no enemies to fight. He or she has only one enemy to face, an enemy that stands at the door of the heart and knocks in order to enter. That enemy is hatred. While some try to have enemies more than to be friends, while many seek their own profit at the expense of others, those who look at the stars of the promise, those who follow the ways of God, cannot be against someone, but for everyone.” Otherwise, “save yourself if you can” will quickly translate into “all against all.”

He concluded his speech at Ur in this way: “Brothers and sisters of different religions, here we find ourselves at home, and from here, together, we wish to commit ourselves to fulfilling God’s dream that the human family may become hospitable and welcoming to all his children; that looking up to the same heaven, it will journey in peace on the same earth.” Ur is no longer just a symbol of the past, but the building site of the future. The recognition of a common destiny shared by all can touch the intimate chords in the hearts of many Iraqis. But that is not all: may today’s walking in Abraham’s footsteps “be a sign of blessing and hope for Iraq, for the Middle East and for the whole world.” For this “we need to do something good and concrete together.”

The pope then went to the airport of Nassiriya to return to Baghdad and the Nunciature.

At 5:30 p.m., the pontiff went to the Chaldean Cathedral of St. Joseph, with its reinforced concrete structure, surmounted by a sloping roof and decorated with stained glass windows. Here he celebrated Mass in the Chaldean rite. He delivered his homily, in which he spoke of three themes, three key words: “wisdom, witness and promises.”

Wisdom has been cultivated in these lands since ancient times. Here Francis translated into terms of “wisdom” what he had said in the morning, certifying the paradigm shift and grounding it spiritually in the language of the Gospel Beatitudes. Biblical wisdom is a “total reversal” with respect to human wisdom. The book of Wisdom, in fact, overturns the common perspective, affirming that “the lowliest may be pardoned in mercy, but the mighty will be mightily tested” (Wisdom 6:6). The Gospel calls blessed “the poor, those who mourn, the persecuted.” Witness is the way to incarnate this wisdom of Jesus that is manifested in the Beatitudes. The reward is that contained in the divine promises. As it was for Abraham: “God promises him a great offspring, but he and Sarah are elderly and childless. It is precisely in their patient and faithful old age that God works wonders and gives them a son.”

From here the pontiff returned to the nunciature for dinner and rest.

Erbil, Mosul, Qaraqosh: the beauty of diversity against fanaticism

On Sunday, March 7, at 7:15 a.m. Pope Francis took off for Erbil, which is the capital and largest city of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, located in the northeast of the country and was officially recognized with the introduction of the new Constitution adopted in 2005. On January 12, 2018, and February 18, 2020, the pope had met with the Prime Minister of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, Masrour Barzani, who invited him to visit the region. Currently, there are over one million refugees in Kurdistan, and the region has become a haven for several minorities.

Erbil is considered one of the oldest cities in the world, with the first urban settlement dating back to at least the 23rd century B.C. It has seen the settlement of Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Sassanians, Medes, Romans, Abbasids and Ottomans. The city, in addition to Syrian refugees, has welcomed in its refugee camps some 540,000 displaced Iraqis, who came here to escape the self-styled “Islamic State.”

After the official greetings, the pope moved by helicopter to Mosul. Founded in the seventh century B.C. as part of the Assyrian Empire, over the course of 2,500 years, Mosul represented the pluralistic identity of Iraq, thanks to the coexistence within the walls of the Old City of various ethnic, linguistic and religious groups, until it was occupied for three years by troops of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” between June 2014 and July 2017. The city has been subjected to systematic devastation. An estimated half a million people, including many Christians, fled Mosul, which had a population of more than 1,800,000 in 2004. The destructive fury hit churches, but also archaeological finds and a wealth of manuscripts and books.

The pope went to Hosh al-Bieaa, the square of the 4 churches (Syrian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Syro-Orthodox and Chaldean), destroyed between 2014 and 2017 first by IS militants and then by coalition bombing. Here at 10 a.m. a prayer of petition for the victims of the war was held, accompanied by testimonies from a Sunni Muslim and a nun. In his greeting, before the prayer, Francis wanted to recall the words of a testimony: “The authentic identity of this city is that of harmonious coexistence between people of different origins and cultures.” Hence the conviction that “fraternity is stronger than fratricide.” Fraternity was made visible in Francis’ speech by the mention of two symbols that testify to humanity’s eternal desire to get closer to God: the Al-Nouri mosque with its Al Hadba minaret and the Church of Our Lady of the Clock. Before leaving, Francis visited the ruins around the square and stopped to pray in front of the ruins of the Syro-Catholic Church.

From Mosul, the pope traveled by helicopter to Qaraqosh, the main Christian city in the country, with over 50,000 inhabitants, 90 percent of whom are Christians. In the summer of 2014 it was invaded by militiamen of the self-styled “Islamic State.” Tens of thousands of Christians had to abandon their homes, finding shelter mostly in Iraqi Kurdistan. International associations have tried to carry on the reconstruction of what was destroyed, such as the largest Christian church in the country, al-Tahira al-Kubra, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, where the pope arrived around 12.00. It is remarkable to see the images of this church destroyed and set on fire and to compare them with the present restored church. The atmosphere was one of great celebration, as if for a resurrection.

Here the pope gave a speech and then recited the Angelus. This, too, was a propitious occasion to celebrate diversity: “Beauty is not monochrome, but shines forth through variety and differences,” which “the destructive power of violence” wants to nullify. Fanaticism is monochromatic. So this is the time to rebuild, having before our eyes the example of fathers and mothers in the faith, who have left a “great spiritual legacy.” Francis reiterated here his firm conviction that when the elderly and the young meet, “the elderly dream, dream of a future for the young; and the young can take up these dreams and prophesy, carry them forward.” Ties must be maintained to cherish the roots and move forward.

After the meeting, the pope went to St. Peter’s Seminary in Erbil, the only one operating today in Iraq, for a quick lunch. In the afternoon, he went to the “Franso Hariri” stadium, which at 4:30 p.m. he drove through in the popemobile without special protection, and then celebrated Mass. In his homily, he spoke of the wisdom of Jesus, who “liberates us from the narrow and divisive notions of family, faith and community that divide, oppose and exclude, so that we can build a Church and a society open to everyone and concerned for our brothers and sisters in greatest need. At the same time, he strengthens us to resist the temptation to seek revenge, which only plunges us into a spiral of endless retaliation.” Francis concluded, “Today, I can see at first hand that the Church in Iraq is alive, that Christ is alive and works in this, his holy and faithful people.”

At the end, the pope delivered a message of thanks for his visit, saying, “I have heard voices of sorrow and loss, but also voices of hope and consolation.” After the Mass, Francis went to Erbil airport to return to Baghdad.

On the morning of Monday, March 8, after Mass celebrated in private, the pontiff took leave of the nunciature and headed for Baghdad airport, where he was received by the President of the Republic and his wife, with whom he had a private meeting for a few minutes before taking off at 9.40 a.m. for Rome’s Ciampino airport, where he landed at 12.30 p.m.

* * *

At the General Audience on March 10, the pontiff said he had “strongly felt the penitential sense of this pilgrimage.” He came closer to that martyred people by taking upon himself, “in the name of the Catholic Church, the cross that they have been carrying for years.” During his trip to Iraq, he physically returned to the place of origin of Noah’s ark, to Mesopotamia. The ark reappears in the place where it was conceived to break the frozen sea of hatred and division, to extinguish every hotbed of spurious apocalyptic thought, which sees only “martyrs” and “apostates,” where instead we are all brothers. Francis evoked from Iraq a new humanism, the one that in Fratelli Tutti (No. 8) he had described in this way: “Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow 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.” Fraternity does not rely on pacts interested in balances of power or economics, but only on the truest and most authentic humanity: it is the ark that can save us from the flood.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 4 art. 1, 0421: 10.32009/22072446.0421.1

[1].    Cf. F. Filoni, “Dove è nata la fede di Abramo”, in Oss. Rom., December 10,  2020.

[2].    Cf. G. Sale, Isis, Islam e cristiani d’Oriente, Milan, Jaca Book, 2016, 69-128.

[3].    See Id., “I Trattati che fecero il Medio Oriente”, in Civ. Catt. 2020 II 141-151.

[4].    One of these militias claimed responsibility for the rocket attack on the US-led international coalition military base in Erbil on February 15 that resulted in one killed and at least 9 wounded. On February 20, the large air base in Balad, in the Sunni triangle 80 km north of the capital, was hit by 4 rockets. On February 25, the United States bombed Syria, in the eastern area, on the border with Iraq, targeting infrastructures of militias supported by Iran. Seventeen pro-Iranian fighters died in the American attack. The Pentagon explains that the bombing took place in response to the missile attack in Iraq last February 15.

[5].    On January 30, 2013, as soon as he was elected, Chaldean Patriarch Sako immediately sounded the alarm about Christians who also risk being infected by sectarianism: “Now, unfortunately, one hears someone say: I am more Armenian than Christian, more Assyrian than Christian, more Chaldean than Christian… In this way Christianity is extinguished. We, as bishops, must be vigilant against these sick forms of living one’s identity.”

[6].    F. Filoni, “Dove è nata la fede di Abramo”, op. cit. On this point, the current prime minister, Mustafa Abdellatif Mshatat, known as al-Kadhimi, has shown concrete support in trying to stop the exodus, even making highly symbolic gestures, such as declaring Christmas a public holiday throughout the country.

[7].    Our magazine has published various in-depth studies on the Document available on 

an-Catholic Church (Baghdad archeparchy of the Armenians), of the Melkite Church (belonging to the patriarchal exarchate of Iraq) and of the Latin Church (Baghdad archdiocese of the Latins). Presiding over it is His Beatitude Louis Raphaël Sako, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans. The Archbishop of Baghdad of the Latins is also a member of the Conference of Latin Bishops of the Arab Regions. In the country there are a total of 19 bishops, 153 priests (including diocesans and religious), 20 permanent deacons, 365 nuns, 32 seminarians and 632 catechists. Cf. F. Filoni, La Chiesa nella terra di Abramo. Dalla diocesi di Babilonia dei latini alla nunziatura apostolica in Iraq, Milan, Rizzoli, 2006; Id., La Chiesa in Iraq. Storia, sviluppo e missione, dagli inizi ai nostri giorni, Vatican City, Libr. Ed. Vaticana, 2015.

[9].    Cf. R. Cristiano, Tra lo scià e Khomeini. ‘Ali Shari’ati: un’utopia soppressa, Rome, Jouvence, 2006. Riccardo Cristiano is one of the finest interpreters of the meaning and impact of Pope Francis’ apostolic journey to Iraq. You can read his thoughts in various publications from before, during and after the pope’s trip.

[10].   We recall that in 2005, at the death of John Paul II, Ayatollah al-Sistani sent a telegram to the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, and to the then Apostolic Nuncio in Iraq, Archbishop Fernando Filoni, to express condolences “to all Catholics” on the death of the pope, recalling that “he conveyed the message of peace and promoted interreligious dialogue. He was a pope who was very respectful of all religions.”

[11].   In an interview leading up to the trip, Sayyed Jawad Mohammed Taqi al-Khoei – secretary general of the al-Khoei Institute in Najaf and a member of the family of al-Sistani’s teacher – said, “We don’t see the pope only as the leader of Catholic Christians, but as a symbol of peace and moderation. Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq is not only for Christians, but it is for all those everywhere working for peace.”

[12].   Cf. A. Spadaro, “Defy the Apocalypse”, in; Id. “Beyond the Apocalypse. Starting again from Baghdad”,

[13].   We recall that in 2017 Francis, receiving in audience the Iraqi Superintendencies for Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Yazidis, and Sabeans/Mandeans, said, “We have a common father on earth: Abraham, and from that first ‘departure’ of Abraham, we come, until today, all together. We are brothers and, as brothers, all different and all the same, like the fingers of a hand: five are the fingers, all fingers, but all different”: cf.

[14].    Some were surprised at the absence of Jews. The reason is related to the fact that the interfaith meeting was limited to the participation of Iraqi citizens. Unfortunately, for many years the presence of the Jewish community in Iraq has been minimal. However, it should be noted that Pope Francis in his speech in Ur clearly stated, “Today we, Jews, Christians and Muslims, together with our brothers and sisters of other religions, honor our father Abraham by doing as he did: we look to the heavens and walk on the earth.”

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