By Elisabeth Hellenbroich
The recent apostolic journey of Pope Francis to Iraq (March 5– 8, 2021) has had a tremendous emotional and spiritual impact on the Iraqi people, its different religious communities – and on the rest of the world. On the background of the Pope’s historic meeting to Abu Dhabi (UAE February 19, 2019) where his meeting with the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Al Tayee led to the signing of the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”, followed by the publication of Pope Francis’ social encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” in October 2020, this papal trip to Iraq marked a new milestone in the Christian-Muslim dialogue and lent particular strength to the “dialogue of religions.”
It should be noted that this was the first time ever that a Pope had visited Iraq; he was following in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) who 800 years ago – during the time of the fifth crusade in 1219 – had begun a journey totally opposed to the culture of war and enmity, by visiting the Sultan of Egypt Malik-al Kamil. In the spirit Pope Francis came as a “pilgrim.” After his arrival on March 5th he first visited Bagdad, where he spoke to government leaders and the diplomatic corps at the Presidential Palace, and later addressed the bishops and priests of Iraq at the Syro-Catholic Cathedral “Our Lady of Salvation” in Bagdad, calling upon them to be pastors and servants of the people and not civil servants.
The most impressive highlights of this pilgrimage in Iraq were his visit to the city of Ur in the desert, to the city of Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh as well as his private encounter with the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Sayyd Ali Al-Husanyi Al-Sistani, the leader of the Iraqi Shiite community, at his house in Najaf. The meeting was an important signal to the Mideast and to the world. The 90 year old Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani is known not only as the most erudite Shiite scholar and most respected Shiite leader worldwide. At the height of the IS terrorism ravaging Iraq between 2014 and 2017, he played a major role by calling and mobilizing the Iraqi Shiite militia to fight and liberate Iraq from their terror. In a press conference on his way back the Pope was asked about Al Sistani; he stressed that he felt the duty on this pilgrimage of faith and penance, to go to “find a great and wise man, a man of God.” He characterized him as a “person who has that wisdom … and also prudence and who had told him: ‘For ten years,’ I think he said it this way, ‘I have not received people who come to visit me with other aims, political and cultural, no. Only religious.’” And he added that the Grand Ayatollah is “a humble and wise man.” The scholar who enjoys respect throughout the world, had expressed that all Christians are welcome and that they want to live in peace and reconciliation.
Arrival in Bagdad
On the first day after arrival March 5th, the Pope addressed members of the government and the diplomatic corps, and civil society in the Hall of the presidential Palace in Bagdad. He emphasized how grateful he was for the opportunity to make “this long awaited and desired visit to the Republic of Iraq and to come to this land, a ‘cradle of civilization’ closely linked through the Patriarch Abraham and a number of prophets to the history of salvation and to the great religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam…. May God grant that we journey together as brothers and sister in the firm conviction that authentic teachings of religions invite us to remain rooted in the values of peace… mutual understanding, human fraternity and harmonious coexistence.” (Document on Human Fraternity, Abu Dhabi, February 4, 2019) He stated that his visit was taking place at a time “when the world as a whole is trying to emerge from the crisis of Covid -19 Pandemic, which has affected not only the health of countless individuals but has also contributed to a worsening of social and economic conditions already marked by fragility and instability. This crisis calls for concerted efforts by all to take necessary steps, including an equitable distribution of vaccines for everyone. In reference to his Encyclical “Fratelli Tutti”- which was chosen as a “Motto” of his pastoral visit- he underlined that “this crisis above all summons us to rethink our styles of life … and the meaning of our existence. (Fratelli Tutti, 33) It has to do with coming out of trial better than we were before and with shaping a future based more on what united us than what divides us.”
He recalled the horrors which Iraq had to live through: “Over the last several decades Iraq has suffered the disastrous effects of wars, the scourge of terrorism and sectarian conflicts often grounded in a fundamentalism incapable of accepting the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups, different ideas and cultures. All this has brought in its wake death, destruction and ruin, not only materially: the damage is so much deeper if we think of the heartbreak endured by so many individuals and communities, and wounds that will take years to heal. Here among so many who have suffered, my thoughts turn to the Yazidis, innocent victims of senseless and brutal atrocities, persecuted and killed for their religion, and whose very identity and survival was put at risk.” In order to learn the right lessons from the horrors which Iraq had to live through, the Pope ended his address with a beautiful appeal in which he reaffirmed “unity in diversity”, urging the audience: “Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as members of the same human family, will we be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave to future generations a better, more just and more humane world. In this regard 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 be eliminated. 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.… May room be made 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.”
Prayer with interreligious leaders in Ur
Among the highlights of the Pope’s pastoral visit was an interreligious meeting in the ancient city Ur (March 6th) situated in the south of Iraq, in the midst of the desert with ancient monuments scattered around, monuments that testify up to this day that this city Ur many thousand years ago was the origin of the biblical figure Abraham, the father of the monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Here he addressed a gathering of different religious leaders. In Ur the Pope, after listening to two testimonies and after readings that were given from the book of Genesis and the Koran as well as singing, gave a short but very moving address:
He recalled that “we are back to our origins, to the sources of God’s work, to the birth of our religions” and that “here where Abraham, our father lived, we seem to have returned home. It was here that Abraham heard God’s call; it was from here that he set out on a journey that would change history. We are the fruits of that call and that journey. God asked Abraham to raise his eyes to heaven and to count its stars (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.” He used the occasion to strongly warn not to allow the light of heaven to be overshadowed by the clouds of hatred! “Dark clouds of terrorism, war and violence have gathered over this country. All its ethnic and religious communities have suffered. In particular, I would like to mention the Yazidi community, which has mourned the deaths of many men and witnessed thousands of women, girls and children kidnapped, sold as slaves, subjected to physical violence and forced conversion.”
(..) “By his fidelity to God, Abraham became a blessing for all peoples (Gen 12:3 ); may our presence here today, in his footsteps, be a sign of blessing and hope for Iraq, for the Middle East and for the whole world. Heaven has not grown weary of the earth. God loves every people, every one of his daughters and sons! Let us never tire of looking up to heaven, of looking up to those same stars that, in his days, our father Abraham contemplated.” (…) He added that the pandemic has made us realize that no one is saved alone (Fratelli Tutti, 54) and that we know that the notion of ‘every man for himself’ will rapidly degenerate into a free- for all that would prove worse than any pandemic. (Ibid, 36). He particularly warned that “amid the tempests we are currently experiencing, such isolation will not save us. Nor will an arms race or the erection of walls that will only make us all the more distant and aggressive. Nor the idolatry of money, for it closes us in on ourselves and creates chasms of inequality that engulf humanity. Nor can we be saved by consumerism, which numbs the mind and deadens the heart.” He ended by stating that there will be no “peace unless peoples extend a hand to other peoples. There will be no peace as long as we see others as them and not us (…) Peace does not demand winners or losers, but rather brothers and sisters who, for all the misunderstandings and hurts of the past, are journeying from conflict to unity. Let us ask for this praying for the whole Middle East. Here I think especially of neighboring war-torn Syria.”
Fraternity instead of fratricide – Pontiff visiting Mosul
On March 7th the Pope met with the President and Prime Minister of the Autonomous Region of Iraqi Kurdistan Nechirvan Barzani, the Prime Minister Masrour Barzani as well as Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil of the Chaldeans, Archbishop Nizar Semaan of Hadiab-Erbil of the Syrians. After a brief meeting he departed by helicopter for Mosul, where he was received by Archbishop Najeeb Michaeel O.P. of Mosul and Aqra of the Chaldeans and the governor of Mosul and two children who offered him flowers. From there he proceeded by car to Hosh-al Bieaa for a prayer of suffrage for the victims of war. One should keep in mind that in June 2014 in the Al Nuri Mosque in Mosul, the IS terrorist leader Abu Bakr Al Bagdadi proclaimed the establishment of the “IS Caliphate” which was supposed to extend throughout Iraq and Syria and to other countries in Europe.
At the “Four Churches Square” in Mosul (Syro-Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syro- Orthodox, and Chaldean) that had been destroyed between 2014 and 2017 during the terrorist attacks, the Pope -in front of the ruins of these churches- gave a moving address. This followed testimonies that were given by Father Raid Kallo and Mr. Gutayba Aagha who both – as Christian and Muslim – spoke of what it has meant to help and assist each other in rebuilding the destroyed homes in a spirit of solidarity. “You told us of the forced displacement of many Christian families from their homes,” the Pope addressed the Father. “The tragic diminution of Jesus’s disciples here and across the Middle East does incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned but also to the society they leave behind. (…) You told us of your fraternal relationship with Muslims after returning to Mosul. You were met with welcome and respect and cooperation…” Turning to Mr. Aagha he stated: “You reminded us that the real identity of this city is that of harmonious coexistence between people of different background and cultures. I especially welcome, then, your invitation to the Christian community to return to Mosul and to take up their vital role in the process of healing and renewal.” He used the occasion to pray for all victims of war and armed conflict: “Here in Mosul, the tragic consequences of war and hostility are all too evident. How cruel is it that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow with ancient place or wordship destroyed and many thousands of people – Muslims, Christian, and Yazidis, who were cruelly eliminated by terrorism, and others – forcibly displaced or killed! Today, however, we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war…. That it can never be silenced by the blood spilled by those who pervert the name of God to pursue paths of destruction.”
He then visited the community of Qaraqosh situated in the plain of Nineveh, where one of the largest Christian churches, the Syrian Catholic Church of the Immaculate (constructed 1932-48) is located. As in Mosul, most of the churches in Qaraqosh were destroyed by the IS after the terrorists had overrun the city August 2014. All 50,000 inhabitants (97% Christians) had to flee to Erbil. After the liberation of Erbil in October 2016 by the Iraqi army, some of the inhabitants returned, finding their houses destroyed. The Church “Immaculate Conception” was rebuilt with the help of many Catholic charity organizations.
The Pope praised the beauty of Qaraqosh and the diversity of the people, and welcomed the testimonies given by Mrs. Doha Abdallag. She told of how she personally experienced the bombing of IS in 2014 in Qaraqosh, adding that when she returned after 2-3 days, there was a major explosion killing “my son and his cousin- 2 angels of martyrdom.” Yet as she underlined, “our faith is our strength and we who survived should ‘forgive’.” Her testimony moved the Pope deeply, as he said later during a general audience in Rome. There was also the testimony by father Amal, who reported that he returned to Mosul 3 years ago where all my “Muslim brothers welcomed me. All Muslims came to visit and greet me.”
The Pope in turn urged that it is time to restore not just buildings but also the “bonds of community that unite communities and families, the young and the old together.” In reference to the woman’s testimony he emphasized that “forgiveness” is needed on the part of those who survived the terrorist attacks. “Forgiveness is a key word – it is necessary to remain in love, to remain Christian. (…) At all times, let us offer thanks to God for his gracious gifts and ask him to grant peace, forgiveness and fraternity to this land and its people.” He emphasized that no matter what will happen to us, the “triumph of a culture of life, reconciliation and fraternal love between all men and women, with respect for difference and diverse religious traditions will prevail in the effort to build a future of unity and cooperation between all people of good will. A fraternal love that recognizes the fundamental values of our common humanity, values in the name of which we can and must cooperate, build and dialogue, pardon and grow. (Fratelli Tutti)”
During the final Holy Mass in the “Franso Hariri” Stadium in Erbil, Pope Francis was enthusiastically greeted by 10,000 people. He stated in his farewell to the believers that “Iraq will always remain with me, in my heart. I ask all of you, dear brothers and sisters to work together in unity for a future of peace and prosperity that leaves no on behind and discriminates against no one.”
In a press conference on his way back to Rome the Pope announced that in September this year, on the occasion of the final mass at the “International Eucharist Congress” in Budapest, he will attend the Holy Mass. On Ash Wednesday (February 17) he had also announced that his Encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” had been translated into Russian and will be presented in the Moscow Cultural Centre. He particularly emphasized that it was the Muslim International Forum that edited the translation into Russian.