The Papal Visit to Iraq
Pope Francis has recently completed a historic trip to Iraq, the first time a sitting pope has ever visited the majority Muslim country. The trip lasted three days and during his stay in the country, he was joined by both religious and secular Iraqi leaders.
Pope Francis could have chosen any number of countries to restart his travels as Pope. After being vaccinated against the Coronavirus, the Pope chose Iraq as his first stop; a country which has been torn apart by war and suffering. Iraq is also not a country which has always been kind to its Christian population, who dates back to the very beginning of Christianity’s long history. The country of Iraq, the target of a US-led invasion in 2003 to dismantle the rule of dictator Saddam Hussain, has never been able to fully recover, as sectarian violence and an invasion by ISIS has left the country lingering behind many of its Middle Eastern neighbors. Iraq as a country can be seen a microcosm for many of the problems facing the Middle East right now: an authoritative, corrupt “popular” government consistently teetering on the brink of collapse, religious violence (in this case between Sunni and Shia Muslims), a sluggish economy, weak infrastructure, and low regard for human rights. But the visit by the Pope, the head of a religious institution which does not represent anything close to a majority of Iraq’s citizens, gave Iraq the opportunity to restore it’s international image. Pope Francis has largely concerned himself with peace and interfaith relations during his term as the leader of the Catholic Church, and perhaps no country is in more need of these two things than Iraq.
The country welcomed the Pope with open arms, despite the heavy security around his events, with many people, even non-Christians, coming to see the Pope. His tour included visits in the nation’s capital of Baghdad as well as the city of Mosul in the north of the country, which was completely destroyed by the ISIS insurgency in the area. Mosul is also home to the country’s Christian community, with a majority of churches being located in the area, many of which were destroyed by ISIS during their occupation of the city (Mosul is also home to some Christian shrines, including the traditional tomb of the prophet Jonah, who is venerated in all three Abrahamic faiths). During his stay in Mosul, the Pope visited the ruins of churches and met with local priests who were forced to work with ISIS during their occupation of the city. The Pope called for unity and understanding between Muslims and Christians, pointing to their shared faith in God. The Pope also met with local religious cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, one of the most powerful figures in the Iraqi Shia community. The cleric, who holds officially a purely religious role in the country, has become more active in politics, recently advocating for democracy and resistance to ISIS; he also promised the Pope to secure the safety of Iraq’s small Christian community. The Pope made a special point to visit the town of Qaraqosh, the center of the country’s Christian community and a town which was overrun by ISIS, with some of its citizens being used as target practice by ISIS, according to Al-Jazeera. The Pope wrapped up his tour of Iraq by holding mass in the city of Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish Autonomous Region, where he was joined by thousands of worshippers.
The significance and symbolism of the Pope’s trip to Iraq cannot be understated. In a time with many of the world’s peoples struggling to deal with COVID and a world-wide economic recession, the Pope’s commitment to peace and interfaith dialogue is one of the few bright spots of today. Although the videos and pictures which came out of Iraq may not have been the best examples of mask-wearing or social distancing, the Pope’s visit brought hope to not only the Christian community of Iraq, but to the country, and perhaps the region, as a whole. If the leader of the Catholic Church can enjoy such a grand reception in a majority Muslim country, it may be a small steppingstone on the long road to religious peace.