The significance, on a theological level, of Pope Francis’ trip to Iraq in March 2021 emerges clearly only when placed in the larger theological, historical and chronological context.
First of all, bear in mind that the pope comes from the continent with the lowest percentage of Muslims, although Jorge Bergoglio’s homeland, Argentina, is the Latin American country where the largest portion of the Muslim population lives: about 400,000 people belong to Islam. That is a considerably larger number than, say, Argentina’s Jews. Pope Francis already brought with him from Buenos Aires his friendship with an important Argentine Muslim, a former secretary-general of the Argentine Islamic Center, Omar Abboud. He also has had experience of how an action of the Church can have repercussions on many levels, if it is carried out in collaboration with Islamic institutions and people, just as it happens with Jewish-Christian collaboration.
Already from the post-synodal letter Evangelii Gaudium, rightly perceived as the principal program of the pontificate, a convincing Christian-Islamic familiarity emerges. This has made it possible for Francis from the beginning to talk with an openness that can well be defined as “apostolic frankness” (parrhesia): this involves not watering down one’s own proclamation as a compromise, but presenting it with conviction, as well as the necessary criticism of others; and at the same time speaking in a self-critical way at live meetings as opportunities for mutual “purification and enrichment,” sharing a common worldview.
Over the past eight years Francis has thus been able to manifest in various places a Catholic understanding of Islam that impressively puts into effect the Council’s description of the Church’s attitude toward Muslims: respect. In six places he has shown more and more precisely what we expect from and with one another. Let us therefore revisit these six places. They are all symbolic places, and places of extremely painful memories.