ROME — Though reaction to Pope Francis’s recent joint declaration with the leader of Al-Azhar, arguably the most important figure in the Sunni Muslim world, received a mixed verdict – from being hailed as historic, to being dismissed as another feel-good statement without teeth – few men have more reason for wanting it to be the former than Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako.
The Patriarch of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church, Sako is among those who openly described the Feb. 3-5 papal visit to United Arab Emirates, the first ever to the Arabian peninsula, as “historic” and the declaration on “Human Fraternity for world peace and living together” signed by Francis and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, as a “seed for a possible papal visit to Iraq.”
“I think a papal visit to Iraq can be organized, because the situation has improved and both Christians and Muslims are open,” Sako told Crux, “particularly after the visit to UAE.”
“This year, or next year, a visit can be organized,” the patriarch said.
The document signed in the UAE, Sako said, “is very important, it’s for everyone. It’s a message of peace, respect and collaboration to build a better world.” Among other things, the Feb. 4 text declares that religions shouldn’t incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor should they incite violence.
“These tragic realities are the consequence of a deviation from religious teachings,” the declaration says.
“They result from a political manipulation of religions and from interpretations made by religious groups who, in the course of history, have taken advantage of the power of religious sentiment in the hearts of men and women in order to make them act in a way that has nothing to do with the truth of religion,” the text reads.
The pope and the imam called upon all involved in violence “to refrain from using the name of God to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism and oppression.”
“We ask this on the basis of our common belief in God who did not create men and women to be killed or to fight one another, nor to be tortured or humiliated in their lives and circumstances,” says the document.
There’s little room in Francis’s calendar for a visit to Iraq in 2019, with trips already confirmed to Morocco in March, Bulgaria and Macedonia in May, Romania later that month, Japan in November and a possible three-country tour to Africa including Madagascar, Mozambique and Uganda in July.
Answering a question posed to him by Crux on the flight to Panama in January, Francis said he wanted to visit the war-torn nation but that the bishops told him now wasn’t the time. Instead, he sent the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, over the Christmas holidays.
Yet both Sako and Najib Mikhael Mousa, the new Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, agree that the conditions are in place and that it would not only be safe for Francis to visit, but also welcomed and needed.
“Above all, we need a visit from the Holy Father,” Sako said Friday. “We have suffered a lot, as have the Christians in Syria.”
A pastoral visit from the pontiff, he argued, would be an encouragement for what’s left of the Christian community as well as a call for every Iraqi citizen to “open up, to build trust and peace.”
“It would be a historic visit if he could make it,” Sako said. “And we really need for him to try.”
“The pope is an adventurous person, and everybody loves him here, so he should come,” Mousa told Crux in January after his episcopal ordination.
“… The entire population of Iraq, even the Shia and the Kurdish people, are waiting,” he said. “Security is good now … A little bishop or a priest, we have no problem moving around, so it would be no problem for the pope to come. He just needs to decide to do so!”
Over the past two decades, the Christian population of Iraq is believed to have gone from more than one million to fewer than 150,000, most of whom are living in the Nineveh Plains, which overlaps the border between Iraq and Kurdish-held territories. Mentioned in the Bible, the plains are a conglomerate of small villages, many of them historically Christian: Teleskof, Batnaya, Bartella, Karamles, Qaraqosh, and others.
With the help of entities such as the papal organization Aid to the Church in Need, the Knights of Columbus and the Hungarian government, thousands of Christian families have been able to return after the region was liberated last October.
(The Knights of Columbus are a principal partner of Crux.)
Though rebuilding the region and the Christian presence in cities such as Mosul and Baghdad cannot wait for a papal visit, the attention it would bring would nevertheless help, Sako believes.
The prelate will have the opportunity to invite Francis again later this month when he takes part in a Feb. 21-24 summit on clerical sexual abuse. Among those participating will be presidents of bishops’ conferences, heads of Eastern churches in communion with Rome, including Sako, and leaders of various male and female religious communities.