At the beginning of March, Pope Francis wants to travel to Iraq – whether it will work will probably remain uncertain in view of the pandemic and security situation. The visit, planned from March 5th to 8th, is to a war-torn, fragile country and wounded religious communities. It is the dream that remained unfulfilled for John Paul II in the year 2000: to make a pilgrimage to Ur in Chaldea, to the homeland of Abraham, whom Jews, Christians and Muslims venerate as ancestral father.
An interreligious meeting is planned on March 6th at this historic site in the desert of southern Iraq, reports Kathpress. At the ruins of the step temple of Ur, which the biblical patriarch may have seen 4,000 years ago, representatives of Islam and the churches, as well as Jews, Yazidis and Mandaeans, are supposed to gather for prayer. They all relate to Abraham in some way; they are all caught up in a long history of rivalry and violence.
There is no less symbolic power when Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani receives the Pope in Najaf. The 90-year-old Shiite scholar embodies the moral authority of Iraq. In conflicts he worked towards moderation and de-escalation; During the protests against mismanagement and corruption in autumn 2019, which ultimately led to the overthrow of the government, he stood behind the demonstrators. He acts as a kind of breakwater against populist Shiite forces in the country such as the militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr. He is said to have had a good relationship with the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael I. Sako.
Meeting as an important bridge
Although al-Sistani has no office comparable to that of the Pope, the meeting builds an important bridge between the Catholic Church and Shiite Islam, which has around 200,000 million believers worldwide. Concerning the role of religion in state and society, Francis and the Grand Ayatollah show related views. After the announcement of their upcoming meeting, there was speculation that the two could sign a call for interfaith work for peace, namely the “Document on the brotherhood of all people”, which the Pope presented in 2019 with the Sunni Grand Imam Ahmad al-Tayyeb in Abu Dhabi in 2019 would have. Most recently, however, the Iraqi government said that there would be “no signing or agreements” in Najaf.
The second day of the program focuses on the terror of the “Islamic State” and the suffering of Christians in Northern Iraq. Francis travels to the Sunni-majority metropolis of Mosul and the Christian city of Qaraqosh. From there, tens of thousands fled the terrorist militia in 2014; about half of the families returned.
The so far only sketchy visit plan of the Vatican provides for an address by the Pope in Qaraqosh in the Syrian Catholic al-Tahira Church – it was devastated by the Islamists. Before that there will be a “prayer for the victims of the war” in Mosul. The open wording suggests that one will consciously refrain from making a denominational distinction. The Yazidis, for example, suffered even more than the Christians from the expulsion and atrocities of the “Islamic State”.
Strengthening some Iraqi actors
It is noticeable that there is no explicitly ecumenical event. The Pope addresses his own Catholic faithful on the day of arrival, March 5th, with a speech to clergy, religious and catechists in the Syrian Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad. In 2010 the church was the scene of a bloody terrorist attack in which 48 Christians were murdered. The next day a mass is planned in the Chaldean Cathedral of Baghdad, about half a kilometer away. After the stops in Mosul and Qaraqosh on March 7th, the Pope will celebrate a service in the stadium in Erbil. The choice of location is determined by corona protective measures.
Some Iraqi actors are hoping that the papal visit will strengthen their position in the country’s still uncertain stabilization process. First and foremost, this includes Patriarch Sako, who constantly emphasizes that Christians belong to Iraq and can also be heard abroad as the voice of Christians; This includes President Barham Salih, a Sunni from Kurdistan, and the non-party Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who has to hold the country together against enormous social centrifugal forces, as well as the leaders of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region in Erbil.
The street protests with over 600 dead were just a year ago. The IS terrorist club has not yet been defeated; an attack in central Baghdad in January killed 32 people. The number of reported corona infections has been rising steeply again since the end of January. The Ministry of Health recently spoke of an “extremely worrying” situation. There is widespread curfew on the days of the Pope’s visit. If Francis does come, he will have a delicate mission ahead of him, and not just religiously.