The Pope’s Trip to Iraq: The Dream of Dialogue and the Reality of Persecution

March 31, 2021
The interior of Baghdad Cathedral

Pope Francis traveled through Iraq for three days, from March 5 to 8, 2021, on the occasion of his 33rd apostolic journey, from Baghdad to the plains of Ur, then to Mosul, Erbil and Qaraqosh in the north battered by the jihadists.

March 5 in Baghdad

Upon his arrival at Baghdad International Airport on Friday March 5, the Sovereign Pontiff was greeted by Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, Babylonian Patriarch of the Chaldeans, as well as Iraqi Prime Minister Moustafa al-Kazimi.

He then went to the Presidential Palace for an official welcoming ceremony and a courtesy interview with Barham Salih, the President of the Iraqi Republic.

At the presidential palace, the Pope addressed the authorities, members of civil society and the diplomatic corps, in a land which is the “cradle of civilization, closely linked, through the Patriarch Abraham and many prophets, to the history of salvation and the great religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.”

“I come as a penitent who asks forgiveness from Heaven and the brothers for much destruction and cruelty. I come as a pilgrim of peace, in the name of Christ, Prince of peace.”

Finally, the Pope met the bishops, priests, religious, and seminarians of the country at the Syrian-Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad where, on October 31, 2010, the eve of All Saints, an Islamist terrorist group had burst in mid-mass.

Two priests and 46 faithful were killed, 56 others injured. Entire families were taken hostage and then murdered, and a third priest died of his wounds. The attack was claimed by an al-Qaeda group.

Bishop Yousif Thomas Mirkis, Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk, in the north of the country, told Vatican News: “The Pope was looking at a martyr Church, and people were very touched to see that the Pope had words of proximity. He who comes from so far, he has been so close, he is truly a true father for a people who for 11 years have not been able to emerge from the stagnation of this fanaticism which has developed.

Eleven years ago, there were 48 deaths in this church, including two priests, and many injured. And four years later, there are 120,000 people who have left the Nineveh Plain and the 13 Christian towns and villages to seek refuge elsewhere. So there is a very painful history, very difficult to come to terms with.”

March 6 in Nadjaf and Ur: Francis’s Dream

Saturday March 6 was marked by two events: the morning meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the afternoon interfaith meeting.

According to Sandro Magister on Settimo Cielo of February 8, the main objective of this trip was this meeting with Al-Sistani, because, “in particular, the pope also wants the Shiite grand ayatollah Al-Sistani to add his signature to the document already signed in 2019 by him, Francis, and by the Sunni grand imam of Al-Azhar, to show the world how much the ‘human fraternity’ preached by the head of the Catholic Church could also reconcile the two historically hostile currents of Islam.”

On this point this visit will have been a failure, as the Grand Ayatollah did not sign. The only consolation for Francis is that Iraq will now hold a “National Day of Tolerance and Coexistence” every March 6, as Prime Minister Moustafa al-Kazimi announced. This national day will echo the one that the United Nations launched on December 21, 2020, the “International Day of Human Fraternity,” celebrated every February 4 “in favor of peace, tolerance, inclusion, of understanding and solidarity,” following the Abu Dhabi Declaration “for world peace and living together.”

During the press conference he gave on the plane during the return flight on March 8, Francis said that even though the Abu Dhabi Declaration was not signed by the Shiites, it must be done one day, according to him.

And he took the opportunity without batting an eye to renew his attachment to this document which is “as it is,” but it is a “first step” on the “road to fraternity.” … “But how many centuries it took to accomplish it!”

“This is something important, human fraternity – how as men and women we are all brothers and sisters – and we need to make progress with the other religions. The Second Vatican Council took a major step with this; then the institutions… This would be the biggest step to take and frequently we have to risk taking it.”

On the occasion of the publication of the Abu Dhabi Declaration, Fr. Davide Pagliarani, Superior General of the Society of Saint Pius X, recalled in a press release dated February 24, 2019: “For more than 50 years, modern ecumenism and interreligious dialogue have ceaselessly presented to the world a diminished, unrecognizable, and disfigured Christ.” 

“It is a truth of the faith that Christ is King of all men and that He wants to unite them in His Church, His unique Bride, His only Mystical Body. The kingdom that He establishes is a reign of truth and grace, of holiness, justice, and charity, and consequently peaceful.”

“There can be no true peace apart from Our Lord. It is therefore impossible to find peace outside the reign of Christ and of the religion that He founded. To forget this truth is to build on sand, and Christ Himself warns us that such an undertaking is doomed to fail (cf. Mt 7:26-27).” 

This dream of human fraternity apart from Jesus Christ is encouraged by the interreligious dialogue promoted by Vatican II, as Francis recalled on the return flight. It is nourished by another dream, that of seeing Islam one day undergo the same transformation as the Church during the Council.

This is what Benedict XVI affirmed in his speech to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2006: “In a dialogue to be intensified with Islam, we must bear in mind the fact that the Muslim world today is finding itself faced with an urgent task. This task is very similar to the one that has been imposed upon Christians since the Enlightenment, and to which the Second Vatican Council, as the fruit of long and difficult research, found real solutions for the Catholic Church.”

“One must welcome the true conquests of the Enlightenment, human rights and especially the freedom of faith and its practice, and recognize these also as being essential elements for the authenticity of religion.”

“As in the Christian community, where there has been a long search to find the correct position of faith in relation to such beliefs - a search that will certainly never be concluded once and for all – so, also the Islamic world with its own tradition faces the immense task of finding the appropriate solutions in this regard. The content of the dialogue between Christians and Muslims will be at this time especially one of meeting each other in this commitment to find the right solutions.”

Clearly, Muslims are invited to write their own Dignitatis Humanæ on religious freedom, based on the achievements of western enlightenment philosophy.

They will appreciate the realism of such dreams which forget the three pillars of the interpretation of the Koran, fixed at the turn of the 11th century in order to erase its inconsistencies, still in force today.

The third consists precisely in “closing the doors of ijtihad,” in other words stopping the effort of reflection on religion and the work of interpretation. It prohibits any critical examination of the Koran and of religion.

The Prayer of the Children of Abraham

On the afternoon of March 6, in Ur, Abraham’s native city, Francis chaired an interfaith meeting. As Jeanne Smits underlines in her blog, in the Pope’s speech “God was mentioned as the ‘Most High,’ but the Most Holy Trinity, and Our Lord Jesus Christ were absent from the texts. It could hardly have been otherwise as the aim was to stress the brotherhood of the so-called ‘monotheistic’ religions of which Abraham was being presented as the founder.”

“God was addressed following the least common denominator as the Almighty and the Creator, so that all could say the same prayer without appearing to submit to the other faiths. No distinction was made between the various believers of the “Abrahamic” faith, nor with “other believers and all people of good will.”

For this interreligious prayer, representatives of the Christian and Muslim communities stood around the Pope, but also believers of the Yazidi, Sabean, and Zoroastrian religions all prayed together. It should be noted that this meeting, which was to bring together all the “children of Abraham,” took place without the Jews, whose presence in Iraq is more than risky.

To those who would be tempted to think that these interreligious declarations and prayers are only words without concrete consequences, it will be recalled that the construction of a “Abrahamic Family House” in Abu Dhabi, should be completed in 2022, bringing together on the same site a church, a mosque, and a synagogue.

Returning to Baghdad at the end of the day, Pope Francis celebrated a Mass in the Chaldean rite in Saint Joseph’s Cathedral, in the presence of a small audience including President Barham Salih and several Muslim dignitaries.

March 7 in Mosul

On Sunday March 7, after landing in Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Francis traveled to the city of Mosul, capital of Nineveh province and administrative center of Upper Mesopotamia.

The Holy Father presided over a prayer for the victims of the war which has devastated the country and this battered city in particular. The platform installed to welcome him was in a square framed by the ruins of four churches, including the Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, witnesses of the destruction of a city occupied by the Islamic State from 2014 to 2017 and the scene of the exile of many Christians.

The Pope was greeted by Archbishop Michael Najeeb, Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, a Catholic priest, and a Muslim who gave testimony on peace and coexistence between religions. Dominican Fr. Michael Najeeb had undertaken a practice of digitizing manuscripts, some of which date back to the 11th century. In 2014, when Daesh arrived in Mosul, he managed to organize the rescue of hundreds of manuscripts so that they would not be destroyed by the Islamists.

Speaking, the Pope prayed in a syncretistic manner: “Lord our God, in this city, two symbols testify to the perpetual desire of humanity to come closer to you: the al-Nouri mosque with its al-Hadba minaret, and the clock in the Church of Our Lady of the Hour. It’s a clock that for more than a century has reminded passersby that life is short and that time is precious.”

Francis then visited Qaraqosh, a large Christian city on the Nineveh Plain, where nearly 50,000 Christians lived before 2014, and which has suffered a lot in recent years due to the war and the abuses of the Islamic State group. Its Christian religious and intellectual heritage has been largely destroyed by terrorists.

In the cathedral, vandalized by Daesh, he was received by the  Patriarch of Antioch for Syrian Catholics, Msgr. Ignace Youssef Younan: “The crowd that welcomed you, as father and pastor, is a part of those Christians who were uprooted in 2014 from their homes in Qaraqosh, Bartella, Baashika, Karemless, and other villages in the Nineveh Plains. Among them are also some of our neighbors: Arab Muslims, Kurds, Shahbaks, Turcomans, Yazidis and Kakais.”

Msgr. Younan, who resides in Lebanon where his patriarchate is located, belongs to the Syriac Catholic Church, which emerged from the Syriac community in Antioch. The latter had broken with Rome and Constantinople at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. It reconnected with Rome starting in the 17th century. Its faithful are mainly found in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.

Francis returned to the irreplaceable spiritual heritage of this Christian community which held on in the faith despite the trials: “You have before you the example of your fathers and mothers in faith, who worshipped and praised God in this place. They persevered with unwavering hope along their earthly journey, trusting in God who never disappoints and who constantly sustains us by his grace.

“You are not alone! The entire Church is close to you, with prayers and concrete charity. And in this region, so many people opened their doors to you in time of need,” the Pope said in a sign of comfort. “Forgiveness is necessary to remain in love, to remain Christian,” urged the sovereign pontiff.

For the last leg of his apostolic journey to Iraq, Pope Francis celebrated Mass on Sunday, March 7 at the Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. About 10,000 people were gathered, the main provincial authorities were present, and the Mass was representative of the ethnic diversity that coexists in this province, with readings and songs in Arabic, Chaldean, Kurdish, English, and Italian.

A statue of the Virgin Mary had been installed near the altar, brought from the city of Karamless. It was beheaded and hands broken a few years ago by the Daesh jihadists during their offensive on the Nineveh Plain, this statue is being restored.

Based on the reading of St. Paul, Francis explained that the power and wisdom of God are expressed above all “by offering forgiveness and showing mercy. He chose to do so not by displays of strength or by speaking to us from on high, in lengthy and learned discourses. He did so by giving his life on the cross.”

He revealed his wisdom and power by showing us, to the very end, the faithfulness of the Father’s love; the faithfulness of the God of the covenant, who brought his people forth from slavery and led them on a journey of freedom…. God does not let us die in our sins. Even when we turn our backs on him, he never leaves us to our own devices. He seeks us out, runs after us, to call us to repentance and to cleanse us of our sins…. he strengthens us to resist the temptation to seek revenge, which only plunges us into a spiral of endless retaliation.”

The Pope concluded his homily by entrusting the faithful present “to the maternal protection of the Virgin Mary, who was united to her Son in his passion and death, and who shared in the joy of his resurrection. May she intercede for us and lead us to Christ, the power and wisdom of God.”

He then left for Baghdad, for a third and final night at the apostolic nunciature, before taking the plane Monday morning, March 8, to return to Rome.