Why is a papal visit to Iraq globally important?

It is not without reason Pope Francis chose a Friday to kickstart his visit to Muslim-majority Iraq.

Mar 05, 2021

By Ben Joseph
It is not without reason Pope Francis chose a Friday to kickstart his visit to Muslim-majority Iraq.

The pontiff is displaying the Western world’s symbolic outreach to Muslims by setting his foot on Iraqi soil on a Friday, the weekly congregational prayer day for all Muslims, to prove that the great Abrahamic religion of Islam stands tall beyond the insignia of Islamophobia and the terrorism tag.

By breaking bread with Muslims on a Friday, the pope is asking the Western world to rethink its confrontational cultural theory of a “clash of civilizations” and down the shutters of all theaters of war in Islamic nations, from Afghanistan to Syria and beyond.

The first-ever papal visit to Iraq amid the threat of Covid-19 is a silver lining in the cloudy dark sky of suspicion, misunderstanding, hate and resultant violence.

Iraq, home to 39 million people, is witnessing a second Covid-19 wave as the pope is preparing for his first trip after a 15-month hiatus due to the pandemic.

The Iraqi government has imposed overnight curfews and weekend lockdowns that will cover the entire papal visit.

An ardent proponent of interfaith harmony, Pope Francis has visited Muslim-majority nations like Bangladesh, Turkey, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.

In Abu Dhabi, he signed a document encouraging Christian-Muslim dialogue along with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the imam of the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo and an influential Sunni leader, in 2019.

In Najaf, Francis will meet Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the influential 90-year-old Shia cleric, at his home in central Iraq. Worldwide, there are 200 million Shia Muslims, but the majority are in Iraq.

By cementing ties with Ayatollah Sistani, Pope Francis has become a peacemaker among Islam’s two antagonist factions — Shia and Sunni.

As the vicar of Christ, the Pope also has pastoral reasons to visit the strife-torn Middle Eastern nation.

Iraq’s Christian community traces an apostolic preaching origin and is one of the oldest in the world. The Chaldeans and other Catholics form half, and Armenian Orthodox and Protestants form the rest. Some of them still speak a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Christ.

They have been on the receiving end of persecution since the US invasion in 2003. Persecution has whittled the Christian population from 1.5 million in 2003 to just 400,000 now. The Pope has frequently stressed the need to protect Iraq’s ancient Christian communities and to ensure their safe return home.

The Pope’s 33rd visit abroad during his eight-year pontificate will take him to towns like Erbil in the Kurdish region of Iraq, the northern city of Mosul and Qaraqosh in Nineveh governorate, where the now-defunct Islamist terror outfit Islamic State ran riot from 2014 to 2017.

In 2014, Islamic State seized control of Nineveh, ransacking Christian towns and forcing residents to convert or die.

In Mosul, the pope will visit a memorial to the victims of the Islamic State. In Qaraqosh, he will go to Saint Mary al-Tahira Cathedral, damaged by the militant fighters.

At a Mass in Erbil football stadium, the number of visitors will be limited due to health protocols.

The Pope will also pay a visit to Ur, the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham in the southern desert, thus fulfilling the desire of St Pope John Paul, whose scheduled visit was cancelled due to political reasons in 2000.

Pope Francis and the Vatican delegation have been vaccinated, but few of the Iraqis have had COVID-19 jabs.

Iraqis have risen to the occasion, and the Arabic title “Baba alVatican” has already dotted Iraqi streets to reciprocate the papal “act of love.”

The visit is set to become a turning point in global ChristianMuslim relations. ––ucanews.com

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