By Inés San Martín
UR, Iraq (Crux) — Surrounded by sand and flanked by a tapestry of religious representatives in the city of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, Pope Francis called on spiritual leaders to affirm that it’s blasphemy to use the name of God 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,” Pope Francis said on Saturday, the second day of his three-day visit to Iraq.
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!”
Accompanied by Christian and Muslim leaders from various denominations, the pope also called for freedom of conscience and religion to be respected and recognized everywhere, defining them as fundamental rights because “they make us free to contemplate the heaven for which we were created.”
The people surrounding the pontiff were a clear representation of Iraq’s social fabric, with many minorities represented, including the Yazidis, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Zoroastrian, and Mandaeans, among others.
Missing were representatives from Judaism, both on stage and among those attending the prayer. Though the history of Judaism in Iraq is documented from the 4th century BC, Jews were expelled from Iraq in the 1940s, and officially there is no rabbi present in the country. Some observers fear that the forced disappearance of Judaism in the land where Abraham was born could soon happen to other minorities, including Christians.
Pope Francis also asked for prayers for all those communities that have endured the deaths of men and witnessed thousands of women, girls, and children kidnapped and then sold as slaves, subjected to physical violence, and forced into conversion. Though he mentioned, in particular, the Yazidi community, that saw 5,000 men killed by Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists in one night in 2014, he acknowledged that all the ethnic and religious communities of Iraq have suffered.
The descendants of Abraham, he said, have the role to help their brothers and sisters to raise their eyes to heaven because “we are not self-sufficient.”
“Man is not omnipotent; we cannot make it on our own,” he said.
“We raise our eyes to heaven in order to raise ourselves from the depths of our vanity; we serve God in order to be set free from enslavement to our egos because God urges us to love,” the pope said. “This is true religiosity: to worship God and to love our neighbor.”
Referring in particular to the situation in Iraq and ISIS invasion of the northern region — which he will visit on Sunday — he said they had tried to destroy part of its “magnificent religious heritage,” including churches, monasteries, and places of worship of various communities.
“Yet, even at that dark time, some stars kept shining,” the pope said, citing Christians and Muslims working together to restore the mosques and churches of Mosul, “building fraternal friendships on the rubble of hatred.”
When it comes to holy places, such as the grounds where he was speaking, Pope Francis sees it as an “existential necessity” to protect them because pilgrimages to places like Ur are signs on earth of humanity’s yearning for heaven.
Moving on to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused suffering everywhere, including Iraq, he said that the way of peace demands for everyone to come together, particularly amid the tempest.
“It is shameful that, while all of us have suffered from the crisis of the pandemic, especially here, where conflicts have caused so much suffering, anyone should be concerned simply for his own affairs,” the pope said. “There will be no peace without sharing and acceptance, without a justice that ensures equity and advancement for all, beginning with those most vulnerable.”
The pontiff then went on to say that there will be no peace unless people extend a hand to one another and for as long as “we see others as them and not us.”
“There will be no peace as long as our alliances are against others, for alliances of some against others only increase divisions,” he said: “Peace does not demand winners or losers, but rather brothers and sisters who, for all the misunderstandings and hurts of the past, are journeying from conflict to unity.”
Pope Francis gravitated between speaking about Iraq, the Middle East, and the world as a whole to both believers and non-believers.
The core of his message was aligned with the motto of the trip: “We are all brothers,” and he spoke about the human fraternity — the recognition of the other as equal in dignity as the grounds for lasting peace.
Peace, he said, begins from the decision “not to have enemies,” and anyone who believes in God “has no enemies to fight” beyond hatred, the willingness to seek personal profit at the expense of others.
“Those who follow the ways of God cannot be against someone, but for everyone,” he said. “They cannot justify any form of imposition, oppression, and abuse of power. They cannot adopt an attitude of belligerence.”
Ahead of the interreligious prayer, the Vatican’s Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin told reporters that the interreligious meeting held in the birthplace of Abraham was “directly linked” to what happened earlier on Saturday when Francis met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
One of the Mandaeans in attendance told Crux that this was a “historic visit” with the opportunity to “inspire Iraqis to turn the page and remember that, until not that long ago, we all lived here in peace.”
Mohammed Abass Salih, who provided live interpretation via headphones into Italian for the Vatican delegation, said that the pope’s “call for peace and fraternity” was highly needed, and he hoped it would be heard “not only in Iraq but in the world. The level of violence we see every day cannot continue.”
“It is up to us, today’s humanity, especially those of us, believers of all religions, to turn instruments of hatred into instruments of peace,” Francis said. He told religious leaders it’s up to them to appeal to nations’ leaders to stop using money to buy weapons and instead distribute food. He encouraged all to silence mutual accusations, so the oppressed’s cry can be heard because too many lack food, medicine, education, and rights.
“It is up to us to shed light on the shady maneuvers that revolve around money and to demand that money not end up always and only reinforcing the unbridled luxury of a few. It is up to us to preserve our common home from our predatory aims,” he said. “It is up to us to remind the world that human life has value for what it is and not for what it has. That the lives of the unborn, the elderly, migrants and men and women, whatever the color of their skin or their nationality, are always sacred and count as much as the lives of everyone else!”
Lastly, after hearing the witness of the unspeakable suffering caused by the war that forced many to flee their homes, the pope praised those who had been determined to stay in the land of their parents while saying he wished those who had been unable to do so would find kind welcome elsewhere.
Rafah Husein Baher, an Iraqi Sabean Mandaean, had told Pope Francis about witnessing her children, brothers, and relatives fleeing to numerous destinations and different regions.
“All Iraqis peacefully coexist, between us, there are familiarity and common stories, together we subsist through the war’s ruins on the same soil,” she said in English, clearly moved by what she was recounting. “Our blood was mixed. Together we tasted the bitterness of the embargo. We have the same identity.”
“Injustice afflicted all Iraqis,” she said, “didn’t exclude anyone: innocent bloodshed from all Iraqis. Terrorism violated our dignity with impudence. Many Countries, without conscience, classified our passports as valueless, watching our wounds with indifference. Your Holiness’ visit to Iraq means that Mesopotamia is still respected and valued.”