Last week, the Holy Father visited Iraq for three days before returning home Monday morning.
While the Pope was in Iraq, he met with local governmental and civic leaders, the diplomatic corps, bishops, clergy, religious, and seminarians. On Saturday, March 6, His Holiness celebrated Holy Mass in the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Baghdad. He also met with the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Husaymi in Najaf. On Sunday, March 6, the Pope went to Irbil and Mosul and recited a prayer of suffrage for the victims of war at Hosh al-Bieaa (Church Square). Additionally, he went to Qaraqosh, where he met with locals at the Church of the Immaculate Conception and then returned to Irbil, where he offered a public Sunday Mass at Franso Hariri stadium.
Perhaps most fascinating, His Holiness went to Nassiriya for an interreligious meeting at the Plain of Ur. There, Pope Francis was at Abraham’s birthplace, the Father in Faith of the world’s three great monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
At this meeting, Pope Francis held an interreligious prayer service attended by Christians, Muslims, Mandaean-Sabaean, Yazidi, and other religious minorities present in Iraq. The focus was on harmony between religious groups in a service the Vatican has named “Prayer for the sons and daughters of Abraham.”
By having a meeting and a prayer service in Ur, His Holiness was reminding the world of the shared religious roots which all monotheistic religions have in the person of Abraham, who before being called by the Lord in the Book of Genesis to go out to a far land lived in Ur.
It was also essential while he was visiting Iraq that Pope Francis drew the world’s attention to the suffering, the persecution, and the martyrdom of the Christian people in the area.
The terrorist group ISIS destroyed so many sites in Iraq, especially ancient Christian ones, and also massacred Christian people. We often think of the age of Christian martyrdom as having passed in the early Church. This is not the case. In fact, more Christians have been martyred in the 20th and 21st centuries than in any other time of history.
Tertullian, an early Church writer, in his work, Apologeticus, stated: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
Indeed, this is the case. The martyrs make the faith credible. They are the ultimate expression of the credibility of Divine Revelation. In 2015, when ISIS savagely murdered 20 Egyptian and one Ghanaian man on January 15, and then later had the audacity to release the video a month later stating that “Rome is next,” their plan backfired. Instead of provoking fear into the hearts of the Christian world, for those that believe, these 20 Coptic Christians and one Muslim, Matthew Ayariga, baptized by blood, was convinced of the truth of the Christian faith due to the witness of his fellow workers. “Their God is my God. I will go with them,” he uttered even when his executioners could have pardoned him.
This week, thank God for the success of our Holy Father, Pope Francis’ apostolic visit. He had much to do while there, praying for peace in the area, recognizing the common sonship of all monotheists under Abraham, and, perhaps most importantly, giving hope to the Christians of Iraq and indeed to all Christians in the Middle East. Our sisters and brothers there are suffering. May we never lose sight that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Christian faith.