When people in the West hear mention of Iraq they probably think of trouble, an understandable reaction given its recent sad history. The recent visit of Pope Francis, however, provided an opportunity to take a more careful look at this ancient land and its significance.
Scholars tell us that while human civilisation developed in many places around the world, it first emerged thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia, mainly modern-day Iraq. The word Mesopotamia comes from the Greek and means the land between the rivers, in this case the Tigris and the Euphrates. There the first cities were built and writing had its origins. There too was developed an appreciation of technology and architecture and agricultural innovation that would influence future global economics and development.
Referring to the historic region of Mesopotamia and its recent past, Pope Francis said: “How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilisation, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people – Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others – forcibly displaced or killed.”
Iraq has of course, a special significance for people of faith because it was from there Abraham, who is revered in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, set out on his faith journey with only the promise of God to sustain him.
Pope Francis visited the site of the ancient city of Ur, believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, who is sometimes referred to as the father of faith.
There have been Christians in Iraq since the first century AD, but they have suffered horrendous persecution in recent times.
Numbers have plummeted over the last two decades from 1.4 million to about 250,000, less than 1 per cent of the country’s population.
It takes extraordinary courage to be a Christian in such circumstances but courage has been a feature of the church’s life from the beginning. It is humbling to reflect on the courage of those small communities of Christians who suffer for their beliefs in Iraq and elsewhere and compare it with the shallowness of much that passes for Christian discipleship in countries like ours where so much is taken for granted.
Faith is not easily come by, as we know from the struggles of the followers of Jesus as they tried to make sense of what was happening on that first Easter Day.
Most of them were initially reluctant even to consider the idea that Jesus was alive and present to them in a new way; others refused point-blank to accept that Jesus could possibly be alive.
We get a sense of that confusion from tomorrow’s gospel (Luke 24) as they discuss the report of the disciples from Emmaus who claimed they had encountered Jesus: “While they were talking about this (Emmaus), Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”
That all changed as they were finally convinced and determined to tell others about their experiences even though, in time, this led to persecution for many and even death for some.
The story of Abraham who “set out not knowing where he was going” reminds us that faith is not something we invent or manufacture; faith is a response to what God is doing or has done. All Abraham had to sustain him as he began his faith adventure was the promise of God.
For Christians that promise is informed by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The great theologian Fr Hans Küng who sadly died last week said this about God and his promises: “He is a God who does not make empty promises for the hereafter nor trivialise the present darkness, futility and meaninglessness, but who himself in the midst of darkness, futility and meaninglessness invites us to the venture of hope.”