By Lydia O’Kane
“It has been a truly remarkable and extremely important Apostolic Visit.” Those were the words of the Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham in England, as he described Pope Francis' journey to Iraq, which concluded on Monday with the Pope bidding farewell to the nation at Baghdad’s International Airport.
The path of dialogue
During his visit, the Pope met privately with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the leading figures in Shia Islam.
He also travelled to Ur of the Chaldeans where he held a meeting with representatives of the three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
The Archbishop, who is Assistant General Secretary of Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales with responsibilities for Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs, said these meetings had their own “intrinsic value, but also I think they have a hugely symbolic significance.”
He went on to say that Pope Francis and those whom he met in Iraq have demonstrated that there “is a way of dialogue that is possible and it is the way that we choose.”
As the curtain comes down on this historic journey, Archbishop Longley said that it would give “enormous encouragement, not only to the Christian communities in Iraq and those who have connections with them… but I think also in our local settings too, it will also give an impetus to our own dialogues; our own interreligious faith work locally.”
The Christian community
Years of conflict has taken its toll on Iraq's Christian community, which has fallen to about 300,000 from about 1.5 million in less than twenty years. Speaking about their plight, the Archbishop said that this visit has firmly put the spotlight on this issue. “The message that came through so clearly was that the Christian communities are important in the countries of the Middle East.”
Signs of hope
Over the course of the four days, the Papal journey produced many powerful images. One in particular was the Pope’s visit to Mosul on Sunday morning, where he prayed amid the ruins of four Churches destroyed by war.
Archbishop Longley described the scene as “extraordinary” and a “tremendous sign of hope” for those who have seen their country wracked by conflict.
Asked if he thought the fruits of this visit would be felt for a long time to come, the Archbishop said that “with any symbolic gesture it’s something that lasts but the impact is immediate.”
He added that the Pope went to this country despite all the challenges, not least those of security and the Covid-19 pandemic. By doing so, noted the Archbishop, Pope Francis “has emphasized the priorities to be one in solidarity with the Christians of these regions.”
Archbishop Longley said that in making this visit, the Pope was also recalling the long history of faith in this part of the world.