When Pope Francis returned to the Vatican last Monday after his four-day trip to Iraq he was fulfilling a dream of his predecessor, Pope St John Paul II who had hoped to travel to Iraq at the end of 1999. This trip never took place because Saddam Hussein decided to postpone it after months of negotiations. Last weekend marked the first-ever visit by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church to this troubled country.
His trip was aimed at bringing hope to the country’s marginalized Christian minority while boosting relations with the Shiite Muslim world. There were once more than one million Christians in Iraq, but now their population is estimated to be between 250,000 and 400,000 after years of war, religious persecution, and economic decline.
A Divided Land
Iraq is a diverse place, permanently divided between communities – Shia, Sunni, Kurds, Christians, Yazidis – each with their own religious or ethnic culture. When Saddam Hussein was overthrown after the US-led invasion Sunni dominance was replaced by Shia dominance after a long, bloody, and savage conflict. The Shia majority have since emerged as the winners, though they preside over a ruined land, and the Sunni has lost almost everything, their greatest city, Mosul, shattered in a nine-month siege. Christians and Yazidis have been ground down by the relentless violence, their vulnerability as minorities exposing them to predators on every side.
Between 2003 and 2010, more than half of Iraq’s Christians left the country, leaving about 500.000. In 2014, the expansion of the Islamic State, or ISIS, represented a new and terrifying threat to Christians and other minorities. In Mosul, ISIS marked the homes of Christians and wrote “Property of the Islamic State of Iraq”. They required Christians to either convert to Islam or pay a special tax and then expelled them from the city altogether.
Land of Abraham
On his plane journey, Pope Francis said “This trip is emblematic. It is a duty to a land martyred for many years.”
Ironically, it is a land where Abraham was born and he is the father in faith to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, what are called the Abrahamic religions. Interfaith dialogue is important to Francis but particularly between the Abrahamic religions and perhaps more than any other pope he has reached out to Islam. His visit to Iraq was not only to highlight the martyrdom of Christians but also as a significant interfaith gesture.
On arrival in Baghdad, the pope traveled through empty, locked-down streets, in a bubble of extraordinary security precautions. Military helicopters hovered overhead. Heavily armed soldiers lined the avenues decorated with Vatican flags and kept watch from the rooftops wherever the pope stopped.
Worst of Atrocities
On Friday afternoon Francis went to Our Lady of Salvation, a Syriac Catholic church where Islamic militants staged a harrowing attack in 2010, slaughtering 58 people in what was the worst atrocity against Iraqi Christians since the US-led invasion in 2003.
Under a large framed photograph of one of the young priests killed in the attack, Francis said “We are gathered in this cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, hallowed by the blood of our brothers and sisters who have paid the ultimate price…Their deaths are a powerful reminder that inciting war, hateful attitudes, violence or the shedding of blood are incompatible with authentic; religious teachings.”
A Great Welcome
The largest crowds of the papal visit lined the streets in Qaraqosh, a majority Christian city that also suffered devastation at the hands of Islamic State groups. While security concerns meant leaving the Popemobile in Rome and using an armoured Mercedes-Benz in the town, the Pope had the window down and the driver went so slow that the police and security officers on foot did not even have to jog.
Bells rang out to welcome Francis to the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, desecrated during its use as a base by Islamic State fighters, who turned the courtyard into a shooting range. While much of the city still needs to be rebuilt the pope said the presence of the jubilant crowds inside and outside the church “shows that terrorism and death never have the last word.”
Visiting a Baghdad cathedral “hallowed by the blood of our brothers and sisters “murdered in a terrorist attack that shook the world, Francis said their sacrifice must motivate faith and a common good.
The Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation is now a shrine to 48 Christian martyrs who died on October 31, 2010, when militants belonging to a group linked to al-Qaida laid siege to the building, detonating explosives and shooting people. 48 worshippers – including two priests – died inside and more than 100 people were wounded. Photographs of the dead, including a three-year-old, hang over the altar.
The visit of Pope Francis has shown the world and the Islamic Christians that they are not forgotten. It has challenged those who preach hatred and intolerance while reaching out in friendship to other religious communities for the sake of the good of all of Iraq.
Referring to Abraham, that paternal symbol of unity he said believers must “leave behind those ties and attachments that, by keeping us enclosed in our own groups, prevent us from welcoming God’s boundless love and from seeing others as our brothers and sisters.”
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan