Pope Francis’ recent visit to the Iraqi cities of Baghdad, Najaf, Ur, Mosul, Qaraqosh and Erbil has witnessed various interpretations. The ancient land of Mesopotamia is the birthplace of Abraham, the famous father of the three monotheistic religions. The Iraqi region which has seen unprecedented ethno-sectarian conflicts in the last two decades is home to the oldest Christian sects in the world. Alongside other ethnic sects like Arab Sunnis, Yazidis, Kurds and Shiites, the Christian minority suffered great persecution. With an atmosphere of religious extremism and intolerance, Christians in Iraq have paid the supreme price. With Churches decorated by bullet holes and bomb-rubbles, the Christian- remnant lives in fear and intimidation.
While congregations were attacked and clerics kidnapped or killed, life in the region is a replica of the days of early Christian persecution. Therefore, it was a big deal for the Catholic Pontiff to visit and bring a clear message of peace, forgiveness, reconciliation and salvation. A story by the United Nations (UN) titled “In Iraq, Pope spreads message of peace, religious tolerance and humanity’s resilience” underscores the importance of the Pope’s Apostolic Visit. In attempting a post-mortem of Francis’ Iraqi visit, we must realize that his historic visit to Northern Iraq where he held prayers at an ancient Church destroyed by ISIL “sends a clear message to the world that harmony and cohesion between the followers of all religions is the only way for the advancement and progress of humanity,” in words of a top UN culture official.
From Ur to Mosul through the holy sites within the country’s Christian heartland, the Bishop of Rome advocated for peace while praying in ruined Churches for the victims of the conflict waged by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which left thousands of civilians either dead or intimidated. This message soon reverberated in Syria, Lebanon and Libya where religious acrimony has held away for years. The Pope’s visit to Iraq demonstrates his closeness to a country which has witnessed wars and violence. He shares fraternity and love with everybody and shows how developing arms of welcome to others can stem the tide of killing in God’s name.
Suicide bombers and those who use religion as a principle of war must learn from the Pope who speaks to the world, as a servant-leader, in imitation of Christ. Although many within and outside the Church have criticized the current successor of Peter for tasking the risk to visit the war-torn region, we must realize that the Pontiff has presented the world with a living example. If anything, his life is a scripture which speaks volume about reaching out to those who hold contrary views. He makes us students of religious pluralism in a world where religious extremism and intolerance is rife. By standing in the ruins of Churches that were blown off by ISIS, Francis demonstrates that love is stronger than hate and that the bomb does not have the final say.
Perhaps young people like the brave Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate, Malala Malala Yousafzai would have watched the sound bites of the Pope in Iraq with a strong sense of motivation for building a better world. Michael Jackson’s hit thriller, “We are the world” gives an extra incentive to this heroic gesture that is capable of inspiring millions of young people around the world to take lessons in collaborating with others to build a better society not minding colour, sex, gender and religious, cultural or political persuasions. During his interfaith meeting at Ur on March 6, 2021, he said: “Here, where Abraham our father lived, we seem to have returned home. It was here that Abraham heard God’s call; it was from here that he set out on a journey that would change history. We are the fruits of that call and that journey.
God asked Abraham to raise his eyes to heaven and to count its stars. In those stars, he saw the promise of his descendants; he saw us. Today we, Jews, Christians and Muslims, together with our brothers and sisters of other religions, honour our father Abraham by doing as he did: we look up to heaven and we journey on earth.” Recall that during his address to Bishops, Priests, Religious, Consecrated Persons, Seminarians and Catechists, Pope Francis emphasized that although there are various pastoral challenges which “have been aggravated in this time of pandemic, what must never be locked down or reduced [is] our apostolic zeal” which has “ancient roots, from the unbroken presence of the Church in these lands since earliest times.” What this means is that the message of the gospel, the message of love and peace is timeless.
Francis’ words and body language demonstrates that he is an apostle of peace who desires harmony and cohesion amongst believers of all religions. He shows that peaceful coexistence is the driver for human development. His courtesy visit to Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Husayni Al-Sistani in Najaf invites religious leaders around the world to employ dialogue for building effective consensus. This has the capacity to address the increasing challenges facing the world. For Peace-practitioners, this visit has the capacity to usher in regional dialogue over universal values which unite people everywhere. Rather than beating the drums of war, we ought to pay attention to Francis’ closing remarks at Ur: “Peace does not demand winners or losers, but rather brothers and sisters who, for all the misunderstandings and hurts of the past, are journeying from conflict to unity.” All well meaning inhabitants of world must sing the song of peaceful coexistence and mutual trust towards healing a fragmented world. Inspired by Pope Francis’ Apostolic journey, all secular and religious leaders should entrench peace and religious freedom throughout the world.
• Fr. Dyikuk is a Lecturer of Mass Communication, University of Jos, Editor – Caritas Newspaper and Convener, Media Team Network Initiative (MTNI), Nigeria.