By Robin Gomes
Pope Francis on Monday left Iraq, bringing the curtain down on the 33rd apostolic journey of his pontificate, and the first visit of a pontiff to the Middle Eastern country. After celebrating Mass in private at the Apostolic Nunciature, he left for Baghdad’s international airport after bidding farewell to the staff and friends at the nunciature.
Awaiting him at the airport were President Barham Salih and his wife. After a brief private meeting with Salih at the VIP lounge, the Holy Father was accompanied by him over the red carpet to the steps of the aircraft where he greeted Iraqi and Vatican delegations before boarding the plane. An Alitalia aircraft carrying him, his entourage and reporters flew out of the Iraqi capital at 9:54 am local time. He is expected to land in Rome at 12:45 pm, after a flight of a little over 5 hours.
The 4-day foreign visit, which began on Friday, came after a gap of a little over 15 months, because of the Covid-19 pandemic. His last international trip was to Thailand and Japan in November 2019. During the 4 days in Iraq, Pope Francis made Baghdad his base from where he flew to Najaf, Ur, Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh in the south and north of the country.
In the spirit of the motto of the apostolic journey - “You are all brothers” – from Matthew’s Gospel, the 84-year-old Pope encouraged Iraqis on this path, saying that only when they learn to look beyond their differences and see each other as members of the same human family will they be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding the country. Thus, they will leave future generations a better, more just and more humane world.
The Pope’s visit has a great significance not only for Iraq but also for the entire Middle East region, especially for Syria. In the footsteps of Christ, the Good Shepherd, the heart of the pastor of the Universal Church went out to seek his sheep, bruised and battered by sectarian strife and terrorism. Caressing them, he assured them they are not forgotten.
Iraq's martyred heartland
Sunday, the third day, was the most touching of the 4 days, flying north to visit Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh. There too he reiterated his appeal for fraternity, hope and peace.
Listening to the Muslims and Christians of the ruined city of Mosul, about the brutality they faced under the terror of Islamic State (IS), the Pope Francis blessed their resolve to rise from the ashes, joining hands together. “Fraternity is more durable than fratricide, hope is more powerful than hatred, peace more powerful than war,” the Pope assured them during prayers for the dead.
Iraq's Christian community, one of the oldest in the world, has been particularly devastated by the years of conflict, falling to about 300,000 from about 1.5 million before the U.S. invasion of 2003. Taking advantage of the chaos that followed, the IS militants overran northern Iraq in 2014 in a bid to establish a caliphate in the region. It carried out its brutal onslaught against Christians, minorities and even Muslims who opposed them. Much of the old city of Mosul was destroyed in 2017 during the bloody battle by Iraqi forces and an international military coalition to drive out the terrorists.
In Mosul, the Holy Father was visibly moved to see the extensive destruction all around him with the wrecked shells of churches, homes and buildings amid the debris.
In Qaraqosh, a Christian stronghold that was overrun by IS fighters, the Pope visited the Church of the Immaculate Conception, whose courtyard was used by the militants as a firing range for practice. He urged the local Christian community to rebuild their communities based on forgiveness and fraternity.
Before returning to Baghdad on Sunday, the Holy Father celebrated an evening Mass for some 10,000 people in the stadium of Erbil. At the end of the Eucharistic celebration, which the last public event of his Iraqi trip, Pope Francis bade farewell to the nation. "Iraq will always remain with me, in my heart,” he said. During his time among them, he said, he “heard voices of sorrow and loss, but also voices of hope and consolation”. He encouraged them to “work together in unity for a future of peace and prosperity that leaves no one behind and discriminates against no one”. “I pray that the members of the various religious communities, together with all men and women of goodwill, may work together to forge bonds of fraternity and solidarity in the service of the good and of peace. He concluded by exclaiming, “salam, salam, salam”, meaning "peace, peace, peace" in Arabic!
The cause of migrants
A significant event took place after Mass when the Pope met the father of the three-year-old toddler, Alan Kurdi, who became a symbol of the tragic crossings of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. His dead body along with that of his mother and brother washed up on a Turkish beach in September 2015 in their bid to enter Europe.
Inter-religious dialogue and amity
The previous day, Saturday, the Pope flew to Najaf in central Iraq, where he privately met the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the world’s leading figures among Shiite Muslims, who form some 60 percent of Iraq’s population. During the highly significant encounter, the Holy See’s Press Office said, “the Holy Father stressed the importance of cooperation and friendship between religious communities for contributing – through the cultivation of mutual respect and dialogue – to the good of Iraq, the region and the entire human family”. “The meeting was an occasion for the Pope to thank Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani for speaking up – together with the Shiite community – in defence of those most vulnerable and persecuted amid the violence and great hardships of recent years, and for affirming the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people.”
From Najaf, the Holy Father proceeded to Ur of the Chaldeans, which tradition says is the site of Abraham’s home, the Biblical figure who is revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims. After a prayer meeting with representatives of the three religions he flew back to Baghdad, where, in the evening, he celebrated his first Mass, called the Divine liturgy, in Iraq in the Chaldean Cathedral of St. Joseph. In a homily, he reflected on how Christians can help God fulfil His promises for the world by living and witnessing to love in the Beatitudes.
To commemorate the meetings in Najaf and UR, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has declared 6 March as the annual National Day for Tolerance and Coexistence.
Call to tolerance and fraternal solidarity
The Pope began his Iraqi visit landing in Baghdad Friday afternoon. In the first important meeting of the day, he pointed to the country’s authorities, civil society groups and diplomats the path toward a genuine recovery of the nation following years of conflict and terrorism. The problems facing the nation can be overcome by building a society based on fraternity, solidarity, tolerance and coexistence, through concrete acts of care and service, especially for the vulnerable and those most in need. The Holy Father said he was among them “as a pilgrim of peace in the name of Christ, the Prince of Peace.” “May the clash of arms be silenced” in Iraq and everywhere, he urged, before making a series of appeals. “May no one be considered a second-class citizen,” he urged.
Later that day, he met bishops, clergy and religious in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, underscoring the importance of sowing seeds of reconciliation and fraternal coexistence that can lead to a rebirth of hope for everyone.