Pope Francis’s visit to Iraq weighted with deep symbolism

Trip carries message of common origin, fraternity between Christianity, Judaism and Islam

A hoarding of Pope Francis and leading Irai Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf ahead of the pope’s visit to Iraq. Photograph: Ali Najafi/AFP via Getty Images

A hoarding of Pope Francis and leading Irai Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf ahead of the pope’s visit to Iraq. Photograph: Ali Najafi/AFP via Getty Images

 

This Sunday Pope Francis will walk through the ruins of old Mosul in northern Iraq to pray in the remains of a cluster of ancient churches used as a headquarters by Islamic State and left in rubble by the war.

“The message will be life is stronger than death,” said Fr Olivier Poquillon, a Dominican friar who is overseeing the Unesco reconstruction of local landmark churches Al Sa’a and Al-Tahera, which still stands roofless.

“It will not be a speech, it will be a prayer for all suffering caused by human violence.”

The visit to Mosul – an ancient crossroads of cultures captured by the militant group in its genocidal campaign to create a puritan state it vowed would reach Rome – is one deeply symbolic stop in a trip that is rich with significance.

Francis will hold an inter-religious service at a city considered the birthplace of Abraham, father figure in the three religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, to emphasise the common roots and brotherhood of the faiths. The trip includes an unprecedented meeting with pre-eminent Shia leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is said to rarely agree to visits.

The message of peaceful coexistence is an essential one for the future of local Christian communities who have deep historical roots in the region. Masses on the trip will be partly held in Chaldean, a local language descended from Aramaic, the mother tongue of Jesus.

The biblical resonances are also profound. Mosul stands on the banks of the river Tigris across from the remnants of the biblical city of Nineveh – home to Jonas, another prophet common to the faiths. 

Fr Poquillon considers the trip to a region associated with Genesis and the Garden of Eden as bringing together Francis’s appeal against wars and for common responsibility to care for creation expressed in his encyclicals, Fratelli Tutti and Laudato si’.

Visit of succour

The decision to take the trip with the Covid-19 pandemic still raging and amid ongoing instability has raised eyebrows. The Vatican’s health service organised for the entire papal entourage, including the accompanying journalists, to be vaccinated with Pfizer jabs ahead of the journey.

The Vatican first planned an Iraq trip two decades ago, and feels it cannot further delay what is now a visit of succour to the local Christian communities whose numbers have been severely depleted by persecution and conflict unleashed by the invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

After touching down in Baghdad on Friday, Pope Francis will visit the Syriac Catholic Church Our Lady of Salvation, the site of a 2010 massacre by al-Qaeda-linked militants who burst into Sunday Mass and killed 48 worshippers including two priests. 

The Christian community of Qaraqosh in northern Iraq, who Francis will meet this Sunday, are people who fled for their lives on August 6th, 2014, when Islamic State, also known as Isis, swept the Nineveh plains and seized their city.

The Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Najeeb Michaeel, recounted the flight in a recent interview with author Hadani Ditmars in which he recalled fleeing within sight of pick-up trucks of Isis militants armed with Kalashnikovs.

As chief archivist at Al Sa’a church in Mosul, the archbishop had been leading a digitalisation effort to preserve the trove of rare ancient Muslim, Christian and Yezidi manuscripts held in the Dominican priory. He rescued this ancient written heritage by bundling the manuscripts into his car, and when he was forced to abandon the vehicle, fellow fleeing people helped to carry the 12th-, 13th- and 14th-century manuscripts by hand to the safety of Erbil.

“We preserved this collection of manuscripts, photographs, and archives,” archbishop Michaeel said in the interview. “This history of Mesopotamia and all its religious minorities. Daesh [Isis] tried to destroy our heritage as well as our people. We tried to save both.”

For our dead

The Christian population of Mosul has dropped from tens of thousands to 50 or 60 families, according to Fr Poquillon, who described hopes among the mixed Muslim and Christian restoration workers that rebuilding the devastated area would encourage minorities to return.

“Mosul is like a mosaic,” Fr Poquillon said. “Our aim is to restore this sense of living together.”

In line with this spirit, the restoration of the churches was funded by the majority-Muslim United Arab Emirates in a decision inspired by the 2019 signing of a joint declaration of human fraternity by Pope Francis and leading Sunni authority the Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb.

For Francis, there’s a sense of coming full circle. His first visit as pope in 2013 was to Lampedusa, the Italian island that was an arrival point for the mass migration of people across the Mediterranean driven by conflict in the Middle East. He cast a wreath into the sea in memory of the many who drowned.

The Iraq visit will culminate with a Mass held in an open-air stadium in the Kurdish city of Erbil. A prayer will be spoken in Arabic “for the Christians of the Middle East”, in Kurdish “for our country, worn out by wars and divisions”, and in Chaldean, “for our dead”.

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