Pope Francis’ Historical Visit to Iraq26 Mar 2021
After the birth of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him), two millenniums later the entire world enthusiastically witnessed history in the making, with the first official visit to Iraq by the Bishop of Rome, the Roman Catholic Church’s supreme pontiff, Pope Francis. With the ongoing war against Daesh, security concerns, and the current pandemic of coronavirus, the Holy father refused to cancel the visit by emphasising the need to stand for solidarity with the Iraqi people. Francis heartily expressed that the visit to this blessed land had bought him back to “our origin”. Speaking amongst Christians, Muslims, and other faith leaders, the Pope devotedly expressed, “We seem to have returned home.”
Despite being 84 years old, the pontiff’s four-day visit was fully packed with many engagements starting with arriving in Baghdad for his first Mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of Saint Joseph. Visiting Mosul, Daesh’s former territory and ending with Holy Mass at Erbil’s Franso Hariri football stadium in front of 10,000 people. The most significant and symbolic event was Francis travelling by plane to the Holy City of Najaf to visit the highest and most influential Shia leader, His Eminence Grand Ayatollah Al-Sayyid Ali Al-Husseini Al-Sistani, at his humble rented accommodation. The visit, in my opinion, was historical and extraordinary for firstly Francis not only being the head of the Catholic Church (2 billion followers) but also the official head of the Vatican state usually commands Presidents and Prime Ministers to visit him. However, he humbly embarked on the visit removing all protocols to meet Sayyid Ali Al-Husseini Al-Sistani, whom my dear friend Dr Robert Crane describes as one of the most outstanding leaders of the 20th century. These two extraordinary leaders’ meeting demonstrated to the entire world the urgent dire need for dialogue and peaceful co-existence between all facets of society.
The meeting resonates with the historical Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together signed by Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi in 2019 with Sunni Islam’s head, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Dr Ahmed el-Tayeb. The document signed emphasises the need for a stronger relationship between all different people and the urgency for a united call to condemn extremism. Arriving in Najaf to empty Rasool Street under the backdrop of the golden-dome of Imam Ali’s Holy Shrine, Francis was officially welcomed by al-Sistani’s office manager and influential son, Sayyed Mohammed Ridha al-Sistani. A few white doves were released before entering the house, signifying the beginning of peace, reconciliation, and inter-faith dialogue.
Pope Francis himself voiced that on entering Sayyid al-Sistani’s room, the 90-year-old who normally remains seated stood to greet and welcome him, which signifies the rare honour. Both leaders sat close to each other and discussed the plaguing of Iraq’s Christian minority and optimism for reconciliation between all Iraq society. Francis, on the record, thanked al-Sistani for having “raised his voice in defence of the weakest and most persecuted”. The Pope also stressed that “the sacredness of human life and the importance of the Iraqi people’s unity” regarding al-Sistani’s message of peace. This was an ideal opportunity for the Pope to have engaged further with al-Sistani to officially sign the historical Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together. A missed opportunity would have cemented Shia Muslims’ influential role in tackling extremism and promoting peaceful co-existence.
The Pope visited the ruins of Church Square in Mosul, which Daesh destroyed and called for solidarity of all Iraqis. The Pope expressed displeasure at the actions of Daesh and the “incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned but also to the society they leave behind”. Addressing onlookers, the Pope expressed optimism: “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 visit was highly symbolic, as it demonstrated the dire need for all Iraqis to put aside theological and cultural differences. Uniting to make Iraq a likeness of the cradle of civilisation. There is the case that Iraqi Sunni and Shia factions must forgive each other and enter into reconciliation to rebuild their country. Civil society cooperating with the government must put in place a framework of excellence that would enable to provide all Iraqis the best opportunities to further grow this blessed and beautiful land.