Pope Francis in Iraq

It was the riskiest trip of his pontificate, but the gamble more than paid off. Pope Francis’ whirlwind three-day tour of Iraq made history and will be remembered for years to come.

Mar 13, 2021

By Christopher Lamb
It was the riskiest trip of his pontificate, but the gamble more than paid off. Pope Francis’ whirlwind three-day tour of Iraq made history and will be remembered for years to come. He is the first Roman Pontiff to set foot in the land of Abraham, where he held an unprecedented meeting with the most revered figure in Shia Islam and offered a message of hope to one of the world’s oldest and most persecuted Christian communities.

Four years ago, as Islamic State (IS) swept through northern Iraq, destroying churches and ordering Christians to convert, a visit by the Pope to the country would have been unthinkable. In the middle of a global pandemic, which has restricted international travel, and with recent terrorist attacks in Baghdad causing security concerns, officials in the Vatican were advising Francis to postpone the visit.

The unforgettable images seen by Iraqis of every ethnic group and every faith alone made his visit worthwhile.

One of them came amid the rubble of Mosul, a city once ruled by IS. Here, in the wounded heart of the country, Francis talked about hope triumphing over hate. “Fraternity is more durable than fratricide,” he said.

Another was the sight of the 84-year-old Pope, who suffers from painful sciatica and was limping more than usual, making his way down a narrow alleyway in Najaf to meet 90-yearold Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most prominent Shia marja, or religious authority, in his spartan residence. Here was a Pope searching out a fellow leader, and brother.

The images point to the priorities for the Church in the Francis era, while illustrating the two core elements of his pilgrimage.

The first is dialogue. Since taking office eight years ago, the Pope has been building bridges with the Muslim world, visiting several Muslim-majority countries and establishing friendships and productive working relationships with religious and civil leaders.

Dialogue is not just about discussions or well-meaning, yet ineffectual, summits and joint statements. In the cauldron of the Middle East, where beleaguered Christian minorities sometimes face extinction, restoring a relationship of mutual respect with Islam is a matter of life and death.

The meeting that Francis held with Ayatollah al-Sistani was so important because Sistani is the most influential figure in post-invasion Iraq. Having forged a reputation as a fearless peace-broker between Iraq’s many faiths, sects and tribes, his interventions have changed the course of the country’s recent history.

During his meeting with the Pope, it was significant that Sistani stressed that Christians should “live like all Iraqis, in peace and security, preserving their full constitutional rights”.

After meeting Sistani, the Pope then headed to Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, where he joined fellow religious leaders to say that the “greatest blasphemy” is violence carried out in the name of God. These events flow from the Second Vatican Council, and show a Church willing to “cross over the road” to encounter other faiths.

The second element of the visit was the Pope standing in solidarity with the Christian community in Iraq. This ancient community of believers, which dates back to the first century and is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, is a martyred church.

Francis has always prioritised the small flocks on the margins. For him, the periphery is the centre. At St Joseph’s Cathedral, Baghdad, the Pope celebrated the first papal Mass in the Chaldean Rite. He was greeted with ululating women and tears of joy. Chaldean is a dialect of Aramaic, giving the liturgy a spine-tingling closeness to early Christianity.

The following day, when he travelled to the Nineveh plains. Francis’ message was consistent. The world is not changed through worldly logic, or human power, but through the words of Jesus, found in the beatitudes.

Finally, in Erbil, in front of a 10,000-strong crowd in the Franso Hariri stadium, he was able to say: “Today, I can see  first hand that the Church in Iraq is alive.” ––The Tablet

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