Looking back at the main stages of Pope Francis’ trip to Iraq and at the Magisterium he leaves us as a legacy
by Silvia Scaranari
The Holy Father returned to Rome on Monday morning, 8th March. During the flight, he gave a press interview in which he recalled some moments and some emotions of the trip, among them: “I did not imagine the ruins of Mosul, of Qaraqosh, I really did not imagine…. Yes, I had seen things, I had read the book, but this touches, it is really touching”. An important journey for the Pope, who wanted to present himself as a pilgrim of peace and thank the many witnesses of the faith who have died or suffered serious losses in the past years. But, it was also a fundamental appointment for so-called “religious diplomacy”, especially during the conversation with Ayatollah al-Sistani – who has already been mentioned in another post – and it took on a significant political weight in the meeting with the civil authorities.
“Deep gratitude to Your Excellency and all the beloved people of Iraq for the warm welcome and generous hospitality […]. I invoke upon everyone the abundant blessings of God”. This is how Pope Francis greeted and thanked, in a telegram, after a brief private conversation, the Iraqi President Barham Ahmed Salih Qassim, who welcomed him at Baghdad International Airport on Monday morning, at the conclusion of his trip, which began on Friday, 5th March. The trip, which Pope Francis had strongly desired in order to implore forgiveness and reconciliation from the Lord, as a “penitent pilgrim”, after years of war and terrorism, and to meet a “martyred church” that, despite of “very hard trials”, has testified its fidelity to Christ, has just ended.
Attention to inequalities that have marked non-Muslim religious communities is a key-theme of the speech addressed to the authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps, which he met in Baghdad on Friday 5th March. Three times the Holy Father asked for a “spirit of fraternal solidarity”, guarantees for “the fundamental rights of all citizens” and that “no one be considered a second class citizen”, because we are all “members of the same human family”. The Holy See therefore never tires of “appealing to the competent authorities to grant all religious communities recognition, respect, rights and protection”. The need is felt because, in a State that claims to be democratic, religious affiliation recorded on the identity card – to cite just one example – is a source of continuous discrimination and, at times, even persecution.
Respect for religion, in all its forms, is not the only issue addressed by the Pope to the Iraqi civil authorities. Another strong appeal was addressed to the elimination of the many forms of corruption that damage the economy of a very rich country (it is the fourth largest oil producer in the world), but with 30% of the population below the poverty line and 50% of young people unemployed. The country is the victim of strong powers that often do not care about the population and only pursue their own interests, either by withdrawing from the territory (perhaps, a dig at the USA, which has greatly reduced its military contingent in support of the Iraqi forces), or by looking at Iraq solely as a territory to be exploited and controlled at a political level (Russia, China, Turkey…).
His “special greeting to the dear Kurdish population” certainly did not go unnoticed, dropped amidst the thanks to all those who collaborated in making the trip possible and to the government that hosted him. The Kurdish situation is far from being resolved, the proclaimed autonomy within the federal state leaves many problems unresolved: the reference made by the Holy Father at the end of the Holy Mass celebrated at the stadium in Erbil on Sunday, 7th March, is certainly not accidental.
Religious authorities and politicians are called to promote a “spirit of fraternal solidarity” and to “build justice”, because, as St Augustine taught, true peace is possible only where justice reigns. The desire for justice must take concrete form in the search for “equity and promotion for all”, the Pope reminds the representatives of all religious communities gathered in Ur on Saturday 6th March, because there will be no peace without effective mutual aid.
Alliances must be for, and not against, someone, to bring people together and point them to Heaven, where the stars shine together and for all indiscriminately. The Pope’s words, far from any form of syncretism, want to launch a collaboration to break the ranks of corruption, of the selfishness, not for earthly interests (the goods of the world are useful, but they must be looked upon as vanity), as to succeed in “helping our brothers and sisters to raise their eyes and prayers to Heaven”. Looking at Abraham, all must agree, “the most blasphemous offence is to profane his (God’s) name by hating one’s brother”. In order to overcome this profanation, we need a “strong faith, working for good … and an irrepressible hope”, just like Abraham’s, who had the courage and strength to abandon Ur, family, friends, land, because of his trust in God.
These were the intentions already expressed in the meeting the previous evening with Catholic religious in the Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad. The Pope had reminded the bishops, religious and seminarians, taking cue from Benedict XVI’s apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, that the Church has an uninterrupted presence, from its origins to the present day, in Iraqi lands and has a special task, to announce hope to all men, to overcome the virus of discouragement: “Following Christ is not only something true and right, but also beautiful”, and the task of the different Churches present in Iraq, “each with its centuries-old historical, liturgical and spiritual heritage”, is precisely to show the polychromy of this beauty, like “many individual colored threads that, woven together, make up a single, beautiful carpet”.
The Holy Father also recalled that the religious, like the entire baptized, have the important task of saving the great riches of this country: the heritage of “inestimable archaeological value”, which is not only made up of monuments, but also of attention to the elderly. The added value given by the many victims of violence, including the dead of the attack on the Syrian Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad (31 October 2010), whose cause of beatification is underway, and especially by young people, an “incalculable wealth for the future”.
Faced with the West, which is dying under the demographic collapse, Iraq, like the entire Middle East, is rich in young people, and to them should be addressed the appeal not to become demoralized, not to allow themselves to be instrumentalised, not to allow the spiral of hatred and division towards others to be triggered. They are the hope that a new social, religious and political reality can see the light.
Certainly, in this land there have been many trials for the Christian Churches, many sufferings that can lead to fatigue, to disappointment, but the Pope, in the homily of the Holy Mass celebrated on Saturday 6th March in the Chaldean Cathedral dedicated to St Joseph in Baghdad, recalls the greatness of God, who always keeps his promises.
Taking cue from the reading of the Beatitudes, he reminds that God’s logic is not the logic of men: His logic favors the meek over the arrogant, the weak over the strong, the persecuted over the persecutor. The Lord’s proposal might seem like a loser’s proposal, but the Pope says, it is a “wise” proposal, because it is the proposal of love, which always wins. It is the love that has made “martyrs victorious in their trials, and there have been so many in the last century, more than in the previous ones!”. The love makes possible to begin again, to get back up after every defeat.
This is what God has done: after every betrayal of the chosen people, he has forgiven, he has started again, he has relaunched, and even Jesus, when he asks for testimony, offers the reward: whoever lives the beatitudes “will have the kingdom of heaven, will be consoled, satiated, will see God”. God is always faithful, and the last word “belongs to God and his Son, victor over sin and death”, said the Pope during the meeting with the Christian community of Qaraqosh, at the Church of the Immaculate Conception.
Qaraqosh is perhaps the most significant stop of the entire trip: a town in the Nineveh Plain with a Syrian Catholic majority, 32 km southeast of Mosul and 60 km west of Erbil, it is an agricultural area with an enormous archaeological heritage. Here, Islamic State (ISIS) militiamen have ravaged, raped, killed and burned, turned the Cathedral into a shooting range, forcing thousands to flee (in 2014 there were about 50,000 Christians, today no more than 20,000). This leg of the journey is truly “a caress from the Pope” to a wounded, prostrate, but victorious Christian community.
In 2014-15-16, who could have imagined the crowds lining the streets, awaiting the arrival of Pope Francis, a clear demonstration that the hatred and violence of war have not had the last word? Much needs to be rebuilt, but “now is the time to restore not only the buildings, but first of all the bonds that unite communities and families, young and old” and “guard your roots”, continuing to dream, to have hope, certain that from heaven the many Christian martyrs of contemporary Iraq are watching over this land. “We need the ability to forgive and, at the same time, the courage to fight without ever tiring of praying for the conversion of hearts and for the triumph of a culture of life […] with respect for differences and different religious traditions”.
This theme was also taken up in Mosul, during the prayer for the victims of the war, when the Pope reiterated the importance of the Christian presence, which is a true leaven of renewal and restoration of a society deeply lacerated and impoverished by the loss of so many of its members.
Even the abandonment of just one, makes the country poorer, weaker, and from this territory, thousands have been forced to flee by violence and abuse, but “fraternity is stronger than fratricide, hope is stronger than death, peace is stronger than war”. After so much suffering, after so many centuries of persecution alternating with discrimination, one might legitimately ask oneself what sense there is in remaining in Iraq: why do not prefer the United States or Canada where thousands of Chaldeans and Syrians have already been living for decades? The Pope replied indirectly in his last public speech on Sunday 7th March, the homily of the Holy Mass, celebrated in Erbil in the Franso Hariri stadium.
Erbil is another city that has suffered greatly from the fury of Isis, that has seen its Christian and Yazidi communities decimated, that mourns so many deaths and so many houses burned, destroyed and looted. It was precisely in Erbil that the Pope recalled that the Gospel has the power to change lives and that he had come to this country to “confirm” Christians in their faith and in their witness, which is essential for the entire social fabric.
Everywhere, but especially in the Middle East, the presence of Christians is not only a tribute to their origins, it is an essential presence for peaceful coexistence, to bear witness to tolerance, to demand religious freedom, not only for themselves, but also for other non-Islamic religious communities, to be a sign of the “Kingdom to come, the Kingdom of love, justice and peace”. Just as Jesus did not manifest his power with extraordinary gestures, but with mercy and forgiveness, so the Church in Iraq, which is alive, must be a leaven of coexistence. Coexistence that is not a generic “let us tolerate everything and everyone”, but is living in peace, helping people to raise their eyes to heaven, looking at others with the generous, patient and merciful eyes of God, dreaming of the true happiness and freedom that can only be found in Christ.
Martedì, 9 marzo 2021