When Pope Francis arrived in Baghdad on Friday, he scripted history with the first ever visit to Iraq by the head of the Catholic church. Impervious to a possible surge in coronavirus cases and undaunted by the precarious security situation, the Pope is riveted to the interests of Iraq’s Christians who have braved years of war, not to forget the repressive regime of Saddam Hussein.
Indeed, this is the first trip undertaken by the Pope after the pandemic plagued the world and the first time a head of the Roman Catholic Church has visited the embattled country. Well and truly, it is the second facet that makes his three-day visit historic. By choosing Iraq as his first port of call since the pandemic began, Pope Francis waded directly into the issues of war and peace, and poverty and religious strife, in an ancient biblical land. “This trip is emblematic,” he said, calling it “a duty to a land martyred for many years.”
In an area known as the cradle of civilization, the modern history of Mesopotamia ~ now present-day Iraq ~ has been scarred by lasting hardship: three decades of despotic rule, followed by nearly two decades of war and a wave of carnage unleashed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Once regarded as a “rich tapestry of faiths”, Iraq bears witness to a clash of civilizations with the hardening of the orthodox sections. Its Jews are almost completely gone, and its Christian community becomes smaller every year. About one million have fled since the Anglo-US invasion of 2003. An estimated 500,000 remain.
The ethnic factor makes the Pope’s visit to the ancient city of Ur ~ believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, who is revered by Muslims, Jews and Christians alike ~ all the more powerful. It is significant, therefore, that his visit boasts a motto from the Gospel of Matthew ~ “You are all brothers.” Regretfully, Iraq has not lived up to that noble matrix for much that has happened there is ignoble. The visit is, therefore, rich in symbolism.
The Pope’s agenda is focused on the terrible toll wrought when divisions harden and violence takes over. On Friday evening he met priests, bishops and others at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad. Just over a decade ago, the church was vandalised when militants unleashed a fusillade of grenades, bullets and suicide vests. At least 58 people were killed in the assault, which was carried out by an affiliate of Al Qaida.
Yet it was far from the deadliest massacre in the country, where tens of thousands have died in war and sectarian fighting, but the attack jolted the Christian community to its foundations. Pope Francis made it clear that after Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI had to scuttle plans to visit the remaining Christians in the country, he would not cancel his own trip.