Pope John Paul II had wanted to make a pastoral visit to the country in 2000 for the Millennium Jubilee, but due to the well-known reasons of insecurity, it was canceled.Now, Pope Francis becomes the first Catholic Pontiff to visit Iraq. About this Papal visit he made from 5th to 8th March, the Iraqi President Barham Salih said, “This visit is a message of peace to Iraqis of all religions, and serve to affirm the common values of justice and dignity that Iraq stands for.” In line with the same sentiment, a Vatican source affirmed, ‘one of the aims of the trip is to comfort Christians who have been forced to flee conflict in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries.’
It is a globally known fact that since 2003, US-led invasion and later havoc caused by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) at least a third of the country has been affected. Among the four cities—Bagdad, Ur, Daesh and Mosul, the Pope visited, the two latter ones are the worst affected areas. The papal visit brought together in brotherhood the Muslims, Jews, Christians and the other religious minority groups.
The greatest effect and the fruit of the visit is the victory of the human spirit over evil, violence, intolerance, fanaticism and religious bigotry. Pope Francis in his thoughtful words touched not only the people of Iraq and the Christian community who are the first listeners, but the whole world. In his addresses, he delivered messages of peaceful coexistence, urging coexistence and safety for all. Perhaps the catchy phrase is: “fraternity is more durable than fratricide.”
The people had waited for a saving moment such as this papal visit. “This visit gives us hope and courage, it’s as if we’re celebrating a new life,” said Frdos Zora, a nun at the Erbil stadium Mass.
Witnessing for himself the destruction of the land and people, the Pope exclaimed, “How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people – Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others – forcibly displaced or killed.”
“Today, however, we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war.”
The papal visit embraced not only the Catholics, but all people of goodwill and all those who are in need of peace and consolation. Peace is possible in a place like Iraq only through interfaith dialogue and finding a common ground to work together.
Pope’s messages of interfaith dialogue and tolerance were lauded by Iraqis of all faiths and across the political spectrum. His visit on 6th March 2021 to the Shia Islamic cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the shrine City of Najaf, in particular, was seen as a triumph that could help stabilise the country.Overwhelmed with joy on seeing the Pope in the destroyed cathedral of Baghdad, Salah Mustafa, a Sunni Muslim said, “…Iraq needs a man like him to show confidence in us. We were once a very different civilisation.”
During the pope’s trip, the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, he toured four cities, including Mosul, the former ISIL (ISIS) stronghold where vast areas still lie in ruins. The Pontiff saw the ruins of homes and churches in a square that was the old town’s thriving centre before Mosul was occupied by ISIL from 2014 to 2017, its fighters ravaging northern Iraq, killing Christians as well as Muslims who opposed them. He sat surrounded by skeletons of buildings, dangling concrete staircases, and cratered ancient churches, most too dangerous to enter.
Asked what he felt when he saw the ruins of the churches in Mosul, which he visited on 6th March, Pope Francis said: “I had not imagined the ruins; I had not imagined the ruins of Mosul. I have read a book [about the destruction], but I had not imagined. It was moving.” He said that when he was visiting the ruins of a destroyed church in Mosul, a thought came into his mind: “Who sold the arms to these destroyers? Those who sell the arms are responsible, at least let them have the sincerity to admit it.” It is also a soul-searching call to the arms traders who perpetuate war for their personal gains at the pain of a multitude of people.
During his inflight interview on the return flight to Rome, the Pope summarized his pastoral visit thus, “…after all these months of prison (referring to the lockdown due to Covid-19), it was striking, that is to say coming back to life again because to touch the Church, to touch the Holy people of God, because a priest becomes a priest to serve the people of God, not for money or career.” And he continued, “the one thing that saves us [priests] from the leprosy of pride and greediness is closeness [to the people of God] and not to become a privileged class of clerics or consecrated people. The contact with the people is what saves us.”
Now, the Holy Father dreams of visiting Lebanon soon on a similar mission. Let us also pray that he will be able to visit South Sudan and bring to our African brothers and sisters the peace they long for.
By Fr. Lazar Arasu SDB
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