(CN) — Pope Francis returned to the Vatican on Monday after a historic three-day trip to Iraq where he gave solace to that country's suffering Christian communities, spoke out against extremist violence and built new bridges with the Muslim faith.
Francis' trip was the first made by a pope to Iraq, a land of immense importance to Christianity, and marked a symbolic moment of unity between the world's two largest religions. Coming amid the coronavirus pandemic and continued violence, the trip also carried with it security and health risks. By drawing large crowds, the pope's trip could serve to spread the coronavirus. The pope and his entourage were vaccinated.
On Sunday, the 84-year-old head of the Catholic Church visited the war-ravaged city of Mosul and spoke amid the ruins of churches destroyed during the conflict between the Islamic State and U.S.-backed Iraqi forces. His appearance in Mosul was a powerful rebuttal to the terrorist group's vows that it would march all the way to the Vatican. The group issued this violent message after it seized Mosul seven years ago and turned it into the capital of its caliphate.
Standing in the midst of the ruins of four Christian churches, Francis said “fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than death, that peace more powerful than war.”
“This conviction speaks with greater eloquence than the passing voices of hatred and violence,” he said, “and it can never be silenced by the blood spilled by those who pervert the name of God to pursue paths of destruction.”
Perhaps most significantly, on Saturday Francis walked to the modest home of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered Shiite cleric, inside the city of Najaf. In the highly choreographed encounter, the two religious leaders met for more than 50 minutes inside the powerful Shiite leader's home.
Al-Sistani is considered one of the most important figures in Iraq since the downfall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. He is seen as a moderate and an advocate of the separation of religion and state, putting him at odds with Shiite leaders in Iran. He lives as a recluse in a home he rents in Najaf, and he is rarely seen in public.
Francis has made dialogue with Muslims a centerpiece of his papacy, and he has sought to be a role model of tolerance toward Muslims, whose growing numbers in Europe has become the subject of intense debate and fed xenophobia as well as the rise of far-right anti-Muslim political parties, such as the Alternative for Germany party, the League in Italy and Marine Le Pen's National Rally in France.
Since becoming pope in 2013, Francis has called for solidarity with Muslim immigrants, most of whom show up in Europe fleeing war and poverty in their homelands. In March 2016, he kissed and washed the feet of 12 immigrants, some of whom were Muslims. He also brought Syrian refugee families to live in the Vatican after he visited a notorious camp for asylum seekers called Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos.
In 2017, Francis traveled to Egypt where he met Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, one of the most revered Sunni clerics. During his trip to Egypt, Francis visited a Coptic Christian church where 29 people were killed in a suicide bombing. Similar to Iraqi Christians, Coptic Christians in Egypt face extremist violence. Calling himself a “messenger of peace” during his voyage to Egypt, he spoke about the need to end religious violence.
Francis and al-Tayeb in 2019 signed the Document of Human Fraternity, a pledge urging humanity to “rediscover the values of peace, justice, goodness, beauty, human fraternity and coexistence.” The signing ceremony took place in Abu Dhabi, marking the first visit of a pope to the Arabian Peninsula.
There was speculation that al-Sistani would also put his signature to the Document of Human Fraternity, but that didn't happen. Instead, the pope and Shiite leader issued a statement in which al-Sistani said Christians need to be protected in Iraq.
Some Muslim leaders cut ties with the Vatican following comments in 2006 from Pope Benedict XVI, Francis' predecessor, suggesting Islam was flawed because it advocated violence. His comments sparked outrage and violence. An Italian nun in Somalia was killed, churches in the West Bank were attacked, and a priest in Iraq was beheaded. Benedict ultimately issued an apology, opened a dialogue with Muslim leaders and visited a mosque in Turkey.
Iraq comprises what was known in antiquity as Mesopotamia, and it was the site of central events in early Christianity. In Christian tradition, it was the location for the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel, the birthplace of Abraham and therefore also of the Bible.
On his trip, Francis visited the site of the city of Ur, which is considered the birthplace of Abraham. Christianity, Islam and Judaism all trace their origins to Abraham. In another gesture of bridging religions, Francis held a ceremony together with Muslim clerics and religious leaders from minority groups, including Yazidis, Zoroastrians and Sabaeans, at the site of Ur. Israeli media reported that a Jewish delegation was initially invited but that that invitation was withdrawn by Iraqi officials.
The most stirring moments of the trip came when he was greeted by thousands of jubilant Iraqi Christians, including children waving olive branches.
Since Hussein's fall, Iraq's Christian groups have suffered at the hands of extremists, plummeting from about 1.4 million in 1987 to about 200,000 in 2019.
Yesar Al-Maleki, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, said in a briefing note that it is hoped the pope's visit will “incentivize Iraq’s government to pursue a genuine policy to stop and reverse the Christian exodus from the country.”
“The papal visit comes as an opportunity for Iraqis of all faiths to heal and unite for a common future of peace and prosperity,” Al-Maleki said.
The Islamic State group has committed brutal crimes, including slavery and rape, against Mosul's Christians, Yazidi and Shabak minorities.
Al-Maleki said Iraq is at risk of entirely losing its Eastern Aramaic-speaking Assyrian and Chaldean Christian communities. The Assyrian community is considered one of the oldest Christian communities.
A reparations regime for Christians in Iraq would help “ensure their return to their towns in northern Iraq,” Al-Maleki said. He noted that armed groups connected to Iraq’s Shi’a political elites also are accused of forcefully confiscating properties from Christians.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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