On March 8, 2021, Pope Francis concluded a trip to Iraq. This event demonstrated that Iraq, still beset by violence and recovering from decades of war and mismanagement, was able to pull off a visit that would have posed a challenge for any country.
President Barham SALIH told The New York Times about the importance of the historical visit: “I am not underestimating the challenges facing Iraq, but the visit by the pope was a remarkable affirmation of the essence of these values of tolerance and coexistence that are deeply rooted in Iraqi society”.
For Iraqi authorities, the event was an affirmation of the country’s importance in the region, after years of isolation by Sunni Arab countries because of Iraq’s Shiite majority leadership.
With this visit, the pontiff wanted to bring hope to the country’s marginalized Christian minority with a message of coexistence, forgiveness, and peace.
Francis urged Iraqis to embrace diversity, from Najaf in the south, where he held a historic face-to-face meeting with powerful Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-SISTANI, to Nineveh to the north, where he met with Christian victims of the Daesh group’s terror and heard their testimonies of survival. Intense security surrounded his trip to Iraq.
In the city of Mosul, once at the heart of the Daesh militants’ so-called “caliphate” and still devastated years after the group’s onslaught, Francis prayed in a square containing the remnants of four churches, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, and Chaldean, nearly destroyed in the war to oust Daesh from the city.
Hayder KHOEI, an Iraqi analyst said: “Just the backdrop of destroyed churches and a broken cross is a very powerful message that ISIS doesn’t belong in Iraq, but the Christian Iraqis are an Indigenous community and they belong in this land”.
Iraq conducted its biggest security operation in the six communities where the pope traveled. Just days after he arrived, the Vatican said he would press on with the trip despite a recent rocket attack in the west.
Archbishop Paul GALLAGHER, the Vatican’s foreign minister said in an interview on the plane that “You don’t resolve the problems of a country like Iraq overnight and with a bit of ecumenism”. He said that the pope’s visit had “overcome lots of obstacles and I think that sends a strong message”.
The pope’s visit gave comfort to the country’s remaining Christians who have begun to feel like strangers in their own country.
Signaling his concern for displaced people in the region, Francis met on Sunday with the father of Alan KURDI, the 3-year-old Syrian boy killed when his family’s rubber dinghy capsized between Turkey and Greece.
Iraqi officials said they hoped to start an ongoing interreligious dialogue, but acknowledged the difficulties ahead.
Cardinal Louis Raphael SAKO, the Iraqi Christian leader promoted by France in 2018 said: “The pope, he cannot make a miracle”, “We sows the seeds, but we have to water them, and God will bless them and let them grow”.
Public health experts had expressed concerns ahead of the trip that large gatherings could serve as super spreader events for the coronavirus in a country suffering from a worsening outbreak where few have been vaccinated. The pope and members of his delegation have been vaccinated but most Iraqis have not.
Iraq is in the midst of another wave of the coronavirus, spurred by a new, more infectious strain that first appeared in the UK.
This article was edited using the data from the Aljazeera.com, Trtworld.com, Nytimes.com, and Thearabweekly.com.