ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE – In his latest in-flight news conference, Pope Francis said Monday he’s not afraid to be called a ‘heretic’ for engaging in dialogue with Muslims; that he felt “imprisoned” during Covid-19 lockdowns; he was “shocked” by the destruction he witnessed in the Iraqi city of Mosul Sunday; and, on international Women’s Day, expressed regret over the exploitation of women, including the practice of genital mutilation.
“Women are more courageous than men, this is true,” he said. “Today, women are humiliated. A woman on the plane [Spanish journalist Eva Fernandez, from Spain’s Radio Cope] made me see the list of prices for women [slaves]” under ISIS.
“I couldn’t believe it. Women are sold. They are enslaved. Also in downtown Rome, the work against trafficking is daily,” the pope said.
Francis also mentioned that there are countries, “primarily in Africa,” that still practice genital “mutilation, mutilation as a rite that needs to be done. But women are still slaves and this is something we have to fight against.”
Women, he continued, are the ones “carrying history,” and this Francis said, is “not an exaggeration. Women carry history forward.”
Fraternity and heresy
Human fraternity, the term often used by Francis to describe the aim of interreligious dialogue, is important because men and women are all siblings, the pope said, adding, “We need to move forward with other religions too.”
Francis defined his Saturday meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest-ranking Shiite leader of Iraq, as a “second step” in this path towards fraternity after signing a joint declaration with Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb of Al-Azhar, a leading point of reference in Sunni Islam, in 2019.
Without prompting, the pontiff acknowledged that when it comes to interreligious dialogue and fostering human fraternity, he takes “risks” because this is “necessary.”
“You know there are some critics who say the pope is not courageous but unconscious, that he’s taking steps against Catholic doctrine, that he’s one step from heresy,” Francis said. “These are risks, but these decisions are taken always in prayer, in dialogue, asking for advice.”
“These choices are not capricious, and it’s the path set forth by the Second Vatican Council,” he said.
He defined his encounter with al-Sistani not as a message to Iran, which officially does not recognize the authority of the Grand Ayatollah, but to the world, and acknowledged that he had felt “the duty to do this pilgrimage of faith and penitence, to encounter a wise man, a man of God. Simply by listening to him one can perceive this.”
“He’s a person who has wisdom and prudence,” the pope said about the ayatollah. “He told me that for the past ten years, he hasn’t welcomed visitors who had political or cultural motives, only religious.”
He also said that al-Sistani had been “very respectful,” highlighting that the Muslim leader had stood up twice to greet him, when he never stands up to great others. “He’s a humble and wise man, and it was good for my soul to encounter him. He’s a light.”
Catholics, he said, also have these wise men, they are everywhere, often as the “saints next door.”
Asked about his decision to make the trip to Iraq despite the many challenges the visit posed- from a global pandemic to suicide bombings and rocket attacks – Francis said that when he gets inspired to make a trip, he asks for counsel, listens to the advice of many, and above all, prays and thinks his decision through.
Putting on the scale the COVID-19 risks and everything else, he said, “I made the decision freely, but it came from inside. And I said, ‘May he who makes me decide this way, take care of the people.”
He made the decision, he insisted, after much prayer, and “knowing the risks.”
Journalists had asked the pope if he had considered the possibility that his events in Iraq could become spreaders of coronavirus and, as such, lead to people getting sick and potentially dying.
Francis said that the idea of a trip to Iraq first began to simmer thanks to the insistence of the former Iraqi ambassador to the Holy See, but above all, the witness of Yazidi survivor and Nobel Peace prize winner Nadia Murad, who wrote the book Last Girl, recounting what the group experienced at the hands of the Islamic State.
“I advise you to read it,” he said.
Francis admitted that he did not expect to find the ruins he found in Mosul, the city that was the “capital” of the self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate by terrorist Islamic State.
“I had seen things, I had read a book, but [seeing the destruction] touches you,” he said. “When I stopped at the destructed church, I had no words. It’s unbelievable. Not only that church, but others too, and a mosque, that evidently was not aligned with these people.”
“Human cruelty, our cruelty, is impossible to believe,” he said. “Let’s look at Africa. With out experience in Mosul, these destroyed churches, animosities, wars, and now the so called Islamic State begins to spin. This is bad. This is very bad.”
“Something that came to mind in the church is this: who sells these weapons to these destructors?” he said. “Because they don’t build these weapons at home. Who sells these weapons? Who is responsible? I would ask these who sell the weapons to at least have the sincerity to say, ‘We sell the weapons’.”
COVID prison and future trips
Though the man known to the world as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio used to hate traveling, as pope he’s become a globe-trotter, averaging more miles in a year than anyone would have estimated for a man who took office at 76.
But his decade as a stay-in-the-archdiocese of Buenos Aires prelate did not prepare him for the lockdown produced by the global pandemic.
“After these months in prison, because I truly felt in prison, this [trip] for me is like coming back to life, because it means to touch the Church, to touch the holy people of God, all the peoples,” he said. “A priest becomes a priest to touch the people of God, not for careerism or for money.”
Francis also told reporters that as of today, there’s only one other trip he is “inspired” to make in the Middle East, and that is to Lebanon, a country that “is the message” when it comes to coexistence.
A trip to Syria, he said, is not something he has been “inspired” to consider, but he nevertheless holds this “martyred” nation in his heart.
Asked about a possible trip to Argentina, he jokingly noted that he’d been there for 76 years, and that this should be enough. Francis also regretted that it’s rarely said that a trip was planed for November 2017, as part of a tour that would have taken him to Chile and Uruguay too. But since Chile was holding elections, the trip was postponed to January, and visiting Argentina and Uruguay in January, he said was not a good idea as it’s summer and nobody is home.
“But I want to say this, because I don’t want there to be fantasies of home-land-phobia: When the opportunity presents itself, it should be done,” he said.
On the agenda, Francis noted, there’s a trip to Hungary to celebrate the closing Mass of the International Eucharistic Congress, but this visit would not be “to the country,” but simply to say Mass. In effect, that means it wouldn’t be an official state visit with meetings with civil authorities.
Francis also mentioned having met Abdullah Kurdi, the father of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who back in 2015 was found dead in Turkish coastline of the Mediterranean Sea, after the small dingy his family was using to try to reach Europe on their way to Canada capsized.
Alan, he said, is a “symbol,” that goes beyond “a child who died migrating. He’s a symbol of Civilization, of people who cannot survive, a symbol of humanity.”
“Urgent measures are needed so that people can have jobs in their countries so that they don’t need to migrate,” Francis said. “And afterwards, the right to migrate, which does not mean reaching a beach, but being welcomed, accompanied, integrated.”
He then took the opportunity to thank Lebanon and Jordan, signaling them as two countries that have been “very generous” when it comes to welcoming migrants.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma