ROME – When it seemed there was nothing “unprecedented” left for Pope Francis to accomplish, on Friday he will embark in another historic first: A papal visit to Iraq, the birthplace of the biblical figure of Abraham.
He’s going there to bring hope to a long-threatened Christian community, and to take yet another step in Catholic-Muslim dialogue.
The March 5-8 trip producing many headaches for those in charge of the pope’s safety: Both due to the threat posed by terrorist groups and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (The papal representative in the country tested positive on Saturday.)
The country’s minister of health warned on Feb. 19 that “Iraq has entered the most dangerous phase of the [COVID-19] epidemic,” and all places of worship, including both churches and mosques, are officially closed until the last day of the pontiff’s visit.
Despite this decree, photos shows that people are still attending religious services and many are ignoring most safety protocols such as keeping social distance and wearing masks, both of which will be mandatory at the papal events.
After arriving in Baghdad on Friday, Francis will leave the Iraqi capital on Saturday to head to Najaf, the third holiest city of Shia Islam after Mecca and Medina. Here, he will be welcomed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top cleric in Shia Islam. The meeting will be private – in the religious leader’ own home – so it is expected to be free of the usual protocol-mandated pomp and circumstance that prevents any real dialogue.
The two are not expected to sign a document, but then again, neither was it expected for Francis to come back from his trip to United Arab Emirates – also a first – with the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, signed together with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar.
Hayder al-Khoei, Director of Foreign Relations of the Al-Khoei Institute in Najaf, said that “both the pope and Sistani are advocates of interfaith dialogue [and] unity, and they both condemn violence that uses religion as a cover.”
“The meeting is important because this is not only the first papal visit to Iraq, but it will be the first time in history the head of the Catholic Church is meeting with the head of the Shia Islamic establishment,” said the grandson of Najaf’s late Ayatollah Sayyid Abu al-Qasim al-Musawi al-Khoei, who was the most prominent Ayatollah from 1971 until his death in 1992.
However, on his first day in the country, Francis is scheduled to deliver two speeches: One to the political leadership, where he is expected to issue words in support of pluralism, peace and religious freedom; and one to the Catholic priests and religious of Iraq, in the Syriac-Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation.
On Oct. 31, 2010 the church was where five terrorists hailing from Iraq, Syria and Egypt killed two priests and 45 lay faithful, one of whom was pregnant.
On Saturday, Francis will also go to the Plain of Ur, believed to have been the birth place of Abraham, a prophet for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Founded in the 5th millennium B.C. and once a bustling port city – the Euphrates River now lies several miles to the north – Ur was meant to be the stage of an interreligious summit that St. John Paul II had dreamed of hosting back in late 1999, serving as the first stop of his pilgrimage through the holiest sites of Christianity.
Alas, the negotiations with the government of Saddam Hussein failed at the last minute.
German Father Nikodemus Schnabel, former prior of the German-speaking Benedictine Monastery Dormitio in Jerusalem and an expert on ecumenism, said that the visit to Iraq is ground-breaking on an ecumenical level.
“For centuries, the West has had this perspective of the Latin Roman Catholic Church,” he told Crux.
“Then with Pope John XXIII, but more prominently so during the pontificate of St. John Paul II, there was a shift towards the idea of the Church having two lungs: Latin and East,” he continued.
The Polish pope celebrated Mass in the Byzantine Rite in St. Peter’s Basilica several times, and according to the Benedictine, “this was a very big thing, but a part of the Church is still not ready to accept this reality.”
“And Francis is going beyond: He is a non-European, and in my point of view, he is reminding us that the roots of Christianity are not European,” Schnabel said. “For him, it’s not two lungs, but a table with three legs. We have the Latin rite, with the Protestantism and Anglicanism being part of that, with systematic theology, the heritage of the Romans and canon law. We have the Greek-East, with the dialogue with philosophy; and we have the Syriac Orient, and this is the part that is still in the shadow.”
The Apostolic Church of the East was the biggest Church in the Middle Ages, with dioceses in Mongolia and Beijing.
“This is a third branch that is not about the juridical thinking of the West, nor the philosophical thinking of the East, but the hymnal, poetic thinking of the East-Orient,” he said.
“And there’s also a bridging the gap with Islam,” Schnabel added. “Understanding better the Oriental, not Eastern [Orthodox] Christianity, allows us to better understand Islam.”
Francis’s openness to the East dates to his time as Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, and perhaps further back, to his childhood in the Argentine capital, a city that boasts the sixth largest Jewish community in the world and a big Muslim community, the result mostly of a wave of Syro-Lebanese immigration.
According to Argentine theologian Father Carlos Galli, Pope Francis’s porteño identity helps explain his interest in interfaith relations, since coexistence among different creeds has been part of the culture of Buenos Aires since the late 19th century.
Bergoglio savored the coexistence among Christians, Jews, and Muslims when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, and took it with him to the Vatican, the theologian said.
Argentina is also among the few countries in Latin America that features an important presence of Eastern-rite Catholics – including Greek-Ukrainian, Melkites, Maronite, Armenian and Chaldeans – with the archbishop of Buenos Aires historically becoming the bishop of those Eastern Catholics in Argentina who lack a prelate of their own church.
After doing some research, Schnabel has come to the conclusion that Pope Francis will be the first Roman pontiff to celebrate Mass in the Chaldean rite.
On Sunday, Francis’s attention will be almost exclusively in the local Christian community, as he will go to Erbil, capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, and from there go to Mosul and Qaraqosh, in the Nineveh Plain – the land of Prophet Jonah – and until the rise of ISIS, home to a bustling Christian community.
While in Mosul, he will lead a moment of prayer for the victims of conflict.
Omar Mohammed, who risked his life during the 2014-2017 ISIS occupation of Mosul, running the blog Mosul Eye, said he is convinced this will be Francis’s favorite place in Iraq, and that the visit is highly anticipated by all in Iraq, not only Christians.
“We all agree that his visit is bringing peace to Iraq, and hope, something we have lost a long time ago,” said Mohammad, who is not a Christian.
“But also, at a political level, I hope he will address the many challenges we face. I believe he has already been briefed about what is going on. It’s important that his visit isn’t highjacked by the political corruption in Iraq and that they don’t use his visit for their justification for their corruption,” he said.
If he could brief the pope, Mohammed would ask Francis to make strong appeals in favor of rebuilding the country’s judicial system, so that Yazidis, Christians, and Sunnis can all have justice, and so the country can stay away from any political tensions between Iran and the United States; for political and economic reforms; and advocate for real reconciliation among the communities in Iraq.
Mohammed acknowledges the spiritual importance of the papal trip, but he is also convinced that the pontiff could accomplish what others, including the United Nations, have failed to do: “Actually help the country progress, move forward.”
The journalist spoke to Crux from an undisclosed location in Europe, where he has been hiding since being forced to flee Iraq in 2017.
“I believe that this is my country’s last hope, and if we don’t take advantage of it, this will be it,” he said.
Mosul is a city now in ruins. It was a key headquarters for ISIS, also called Daesh, and it was from the Old City’s al-Nuri Mosque that the terrorist group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the establishment of the caliphate in 2014.
The mosque and its leaning al-Hadba (“hunchback”) minaret, which stood at 147 feet tall, were built in 12th century and became iconic Mosul landmarks. Along with over 40 historically valuable buildings, both were destroyed during the occupation or battle to retake the city.
Revive the Spirit of Mosul is an initiative launched by UNESCO in February 2018 to restore cultural and religious sites like the mosque and its minaret, and also the Syriac Catholic Cathedral and the Monastery of Notre Dame de l’Heure.
Dominican Father Olivier Poquillon who “heads” the destroyed monastery, told Crux that the reconstruction of this historic site is a concrete response to the document on Human Fraternity Francis signed in United Arab Emirates, which is helping fund the project.
“Today, for some people in Mosul, especially in the young generation, the time of diversity — when Christians, Yezidis, Kurdish, Turkmens, Jews, Shiites were living all together with Arabic Sunnis — is seen as a lost prosperous and peaceful golden age they would like to restore,” he said.
After Mosul, Francis will visit Qaraqosh, also in the Nineveh Plain, and meet with the Christian community in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which was vandalized and burned by the Islamic State.
Among the groups rebuilding churches and the homes of Christians in the area is the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
Regina Lynch, head of projects for ACN and who will be part of the papal entourage during the visit to Iraq, said that “what we are hearing from the project partners is that there is a growing awareness, if not understanding, of who the Christians are,” thanks to the papal visit.
“There is an idea many have of Christianity being something that came from the West, but many are now realizing there has been a strong Christian presence in Iraq since the first century,” she said.
“I hope that this trip can also address the matter that, no, Christians are not second-class citizens in Iraq,” she told Crux. “During my two times in Iraq I have met Christians who said to me, ‘we are Iraqis,’ and it’s their right for this to be recognize.”
“It should also give Christians hope, encourage those who are still there to remain,” Lynch said.
Davide Bernocchi, the representative in Iraq for Catholic Relief Services, the international aid agency of the United States bishops’ conference, said that the entire country is awaiting the visit, and that they feel honored by the fact that Francis so “persistently decided to have this visit, seeing it as a sign of respect and attention for a country that not long ago, suffered from a great deal of violence and instability.”
“I think that the pope’s visit is the manifestation of the fact that, first of all, evil and darkness don’t have the last word,” he said.
Speaking from Erbil, Bernocchi said the message of human fraternity the pope is bringing “provides exactly what Iraq needs at this point.”
“After all this ordeal based on sectarian violence, political instability, the idea is that communities and individuals have to rebuild trust among themselves,” he said. “Besides the material damages that ISIS left behind, you also have the psychological damage. I think the message of human fraternity is exactly what this country needs: the idea is not just to isolate in order to survive, but to rebuild bridges in order to prosper again as a nation.”
Although not as threatened as it was during the ISIS occupation, Christianity is still in a precarious position in Iraq: There are now only about 300,000 Christians, one fifth of the total before 2003.
“Iraq cannot survive without Christians,” said Mohammed, the historian from Mosul.
“It would not be the same country anymore. It would be a geographical state where people live without any understanding of one another. If we cannot give Christians back their land, if we cannot give Christians back their rightful, peaceful State, then what is left? If I cannot convince a young Christian person or a Yazidi that they can live peacefully in Iraq, then what is left?” Mohammed asked.
“If I cannot prove to them that there is something worth it for them in Iraq, then Daesh succeeded in its horrible plan,” he said. “The survival of Christians in Iraq is our survival.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma