In one week, Pope Francis embarks on a four-day pilgrimage to Iraq, becoming the first pope to visit that Middle East country. It is a significant visit for Pope Francis, perhaps the most important one since his election to the papacy in 2013.
Iraq is the home to many historic landmarks referenced in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, such as Ur, birthplace of Abraham. On March 6, Francis will hold an interreligious meeting near this ancient city.
The Iraqi people, as we know, have suffered through wars and religious tensions for many years. The persecution of the country’s small Christian population, particularly in the past decade at the hands of Islamic State militia, has led to their dwindling numbers. Christians in Iraq numbered around 1.5 million in the first part of this century. Today, their numbers have dropped to less than 150,000, according to Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil.
The pope’s visit to Iraq as a spiritual father will bring much joy and elation to a suffering Christian community. He plans to meet with the country’s bishops and other Catholic leaders in Baghdad’s Cathedral of Our Lady of Deliverance. The cathedral was the site of a massacre in 2010 where two priests and nearly 60 worshippers were killed.
Michael La Civita, director of communications for the New York-based Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), told Catholic News Service (CNS) that the pope’s trip tells Iraqi Christians that “despite their ever-declining numbers, someone on the outside cares — and that someone happens to be the bishop of Rome.”
About 80% of the Christians in Iraq are Eastern Catholics, said La Civita, belonging to either the Chaldean, Syriac or Armenian Catholic churches.
Syriac Catholics in Qaraqosh will host Pope Francis when he visits their Church of the Immaculate Conception on March 7. The church was vandalized, desecrated and burned by the Islamic State in 2014, while the entire Syriac population, numbering around 50,000, was forced to flee in one day.
“These churches (the Eastern Catholics, as well as members of the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Assyrian Church of the East) are steeped in the blood of their martyrs,” said La Civita.
The pope’s visit to Iraq will also serve as an important interreligious event. A highlight of the trip will be a private meeting March 8 with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the leading theologians in the Shiite Islamic world.
“For his entire career, al-Sistani has been a voice of reason and moderation and has been an example of the best of the Shiite intellectual and theological tradition,” according to CNEWA. “In many ways, Francis and al-Sistani are similar. Both are trying to bring their faiths into the modern world. Both are proponents of dialogue and openness. Both often have to deal with extremism and intolerance among their fellow believers.”
The meeting between Francis and al-Sistani will be informal and private, but it is hoped that the two will sign a document condemning religious extremism. In 2019, the pope signed this document “on human fraternity for world peace” with another Islamic leader, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb.
“Pope Francis is truly a father, because he really wants all human beings to be united,” Shahrzad Houshmand Zadeh, a Shiite Muslim theologian who has taught at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, told CNS. “If religious leaders cannot cooperate for the common good of humanity, they are not authentic or credible.”
Let us pray in these coming days for the safety of Pope Francis in Iraq, for hope among the country’s Christians who simply seek a peaceful existence, and for fruitful dialogue between the pope and Iraq’s Islamic religious leaders.