Pope’s wish is that the struggling Christian minority hangs on
By Inés San Martín
ROME (Crux) — On March 7, Pope Francis concluded a three-day whirlwind tour of Iraq that took him to six cities, saw him deliver seven speeches, and marked several historic firsts.
All while defying the year-long coronavirus restrictions, suicide bombings, and rocket attacks. And, much like the United States’ motto, he explained it all with an “in God we trust.”
On the way back to Rome, the pontiff told reporters he had long pondered the risks of the visit, concretely, the ones relating to COVID-19. This virus put most international traveling on hold due to the dangers of spreading an invisible enemy that has killed 2.6 million people.
He prayed about it, asked for advice, and ultimately decided to go: “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.’ ”
In the words of Archbishop Richard Paul Gallagher, the closest official the Vatican has to a role of foreign minister, “The hemorrhaging of Christians from the Middle East — Iraq, Lebanon, also Syria — is a significant challenge to the future of Christianity, and it is a geopolitical problem, because Christians have always been there,” and trying to stop it, he acknowledged, help to explain the urgency Pope Francis felt in going to Iraq now.
Even though on paper the so-called Islamic State has been defeated, the seven-headed monster lies dormant in Iraq and Syria — and it is spreading like wildfire in several countries in northern Africa. Pope Francis is aware of this. During his visit to Iraq, a first-ever for a pope, most of his gestures and speeches doubled as a warning to this terrorist organization and its offsprings, including several pro-Iranian militias.
On Saturday, surrounded by leaders of all the religious traditions present in Iraq in Ur, Abraham’s birthplace, father of believers, Pope Francis called on spiritual leaders to affirm that it’s blasphemy to use God’s name to justify hatred and that extremism is a betrayal of religion.
“From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters,” he said.
Speaking in a country where the “dark clouds of terrorism, war and violence” have gathered, the pontiff said that believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion: “Indeed, we are called unambiguously to dispel all misunderstandings. Let us not allow the light of heaven to be overshadowed by the clouds of hatred!”
Earlier that day, he had gone to Najaf, considered the third holiest city by Shia Islam after Mecca and Medina, to encounter Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who received the pope in his humble home. That meeting, the first between a pope and a grand ayatollah, was a significant step forward in interreligious dialogue. In Pope Francis’ words, it was a second step after the declaration on human fraternity he signed with the Sunni Grand Imam of the University of Al-Azhar, Cairo, in 2019.
On Sunday, he became one of the few global leaders to enter the Old City of Mosul. Once a thriving city, it later became the capital of ISIS, which used churches and mosques as headquarters, prisons, and torture chambers.
During 2014 and 2017, when this terrorist organization controlled much of Iraq, Christians were crucified, Yazidi women set ablaze naked while kept in iron cages, and gay people were thrown off building roofs. Christian and Yazidi women were traded as if they were cattle, and men viciously killed.
Little of Mosul left standing by late 2016 when a coalition army began the campaign to recapture the city was heavily damaged by the clashes between Islamic State and pro-Iraqi troops.
On Sunday, despite the trees planted for the occasion, the pristine red carpet, and the beautiful cross made for the event by a local Muslim artist, the magnitude of the human-made devastation was visible all around. Pope Francis’ short visit to the city, where he said a prayer for all victims of war in a square flanked by Christian churches of different denominations that had once thrived in this ancient city, was perhaps the most remarkable moment of a remarkable visit.
There, Pope Francis reaffirmed the conviction that “fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war.”
He also expressed hope that the region’s struggling Christian minority will be able to hang on: The “tragic diminution of Jesus’ disciples here and across the Middle East,” the pope said, “does incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned, but also to the society they leave behind.”
On Monday, he told reporters traveling with him that he had read about the destruction, “but [seeing it] touches you. 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.
“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 those who sell the weapons to at least have the sincerity to say, ‘We sell the weapons.’ ”
Despite having been significantly bolder in his remarks and gestures during his visit than he has been in the past, he avoided singling out the members of the international community that bare a big chunk of the responsibility in the decrease of the Iraqi Christian population (from 1.5 million in 2003, before the U.S. led invasion, to 250,000 today.)
There was much Pope Francis wanted to achieve with his three-day visit to Iraq — from bringing comfort to a suffering Christian community, to fostering dialogue and understanding among different religions, and show the world that the head of the Catholic Church is keeping a close eye on the future of his flock there where it all started.
The joy was palpable in every single step he made. Only time will tell if the visit will help to stop the hemorrhaging of Christians or go into history books as the last bang of an embattled community that needs safety and stability to thrive once again.