Three decades war, terrorism and extremism have devastated Iraq – a modern Arab power and the site of some of the world’s oldest civilisations, including the Akkadian and Sumerian cultures – turning it into a battleground for Arab, regional and international powers competing for control of the Middle East, including the Gulf and the Red Sea. Pope Francis’s unprecedented four-day visit to the country, which started on Friday, 5 February, marked a moment of hope.
Welcomed at Baghdad Airport by Prime Minister Mustafa Khadimi, the Pope rekindled Iraqis’ hope of healing the wounds of the last 30 years and restoring the religious diversity that had characterised Iraqi society for millennia.
The papal visit took place in a domestic and a regional atmosphere fraught with uncertainty over domestic and regional developments in the context the new American administration and its review of American policies in the Middle East as well as efforts by the Iraqi government to fight terrorism including the resurgence of ISIS and avoid the cost of a confrontation with Iran on Iraqi soil.
Over four days the Pope moved all across the country from south to north, bearing a message of peace. The programme of his visit was designed to emphasise the importance of tolerance between Muslims and Christians and religious diversity throughout the region and the world. On Saturday he travelled to the holy city of Najaf to confer with the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani in “an iconic interfaith meeting”, as the Financial Times described it.
According to a press release by the office of the most eminent Shia cleric, Al-Sistani stressed the role of spiritual leadership in addressing the political, economic and social challenges facing the world, foremost among which is oppression, poverty and injustice. The meeting bore a strong spiritual message that could help restore the spirit of tolerance and diversity among Shias the world over.
Another high point of the Pope’s visit – for its symbolic value – was his presence in Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, which fell to ISIS in June 2014 and where Christians endured the groups brutality, with thousands of them fleeing to other parts of the country, particularly Kurdistan in the north, or leaving Iraq altogether. The number of Christians in Iraq today is estimated to be 500,000, a third of the former figure.
According to Vatican sources, Pope Francis had followed the plight of Iraqi Christians closely in the last few years, and hoped that his visit would encourage some of those who left the country to return. The visit to Mosul also highlighted the volunteer work undertaken by Christians in this part of Iraq to rebuild homes deliberately destroyed by ISIS. The Iraqi government has been accused of providing scant financial resources to carry on the vast reconstruction efforts .
The Pope also visited the Nineva plains where he met representatives of Iraq’s various ethnic and religious communities. He went to Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and a safe haven for thousands of Christians in 2014-16, where he delivered a mass to 10 thousand worshippers. He presided over a mass in Baghdad, at a cathedral near a church destroyed by a terrorist attack in 2010.
From the viewpoint of the Vatican, the papal visit to Iraq is the first such trip since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, and it takes place in the context of the church’s ongoing efforts to consolidate Christian-Muslim relations since the signing in Abu Dhabi of a Universal Document of Human Brotherhood by the Pope and the Grand Sheik of Al-Azhar two years ago.
The visit emphasised political as well as religious diversity, and made the point that violence and extremism are a betrayal of religion. It is worth noting that the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb has welcomed the papal visit to Iraq in the spirit of tolerance and coexistence. Though profoundly significant, it is important to remember that the visit will not eradicate geopolitical issues overnight.
The struggle is such that the kind of progress for which Pope Francis, Ayatollah Al-Sistani and Sheikh Al-Tayeb requires a long time to take hold in the minds of millions who have been led to bigotry, extremism and religiously inspired violence. Millions of others in Iraq hope the papal visit will bring peace, fraternity and stability to their lands, and it is among them that the future of the region should be forged.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly