Today is an amazing, historic day: The successor of Saint Peter is in Iraq. It’s really remarkable. Whatever you think of Pope Francis, he was convicted to get there without further delay. John Paul II wanted to go there, but it was impossible because of the instability.
Yesterday, I hosted a Zoom briefing with an official from the Archdiocese of Erbil, where most of the Christians from Mosul and elsewhere fled from the ISIS genocide, and he showed us the nearby airport where rockets attacked in recent days. Do pray for his safety and a successful visit. Frankly, it’s already been a successful visit. He’s there! He’s arrived to let the Christians know they are not forgotten. And in focusing on the common roots of the Abrahamic faiths there, he wants to make an impression on the majority that Iraq is the beloved home of the minority, too. The Christians are second-class citizens there, even though they’ve been there since the beginning of Christianity. Francis deserves credit for going, despite grumblings that he was going while the coronavirus lingers. No one could get on the papal plane without having gotten a COVID-19 vaccine. Both because of the pandemic and the threat of violence, most Iraq Christians won’t get to see the pope in person, but they’re ok with that. He’s in their country.
These people are remarkable and have so much to teach us about what it means to be Christian and how to suffer well. I pray the West gets a sense of that this weekend.
The pontiff has a busy schedule ahead: on Friday he’s meeting civil authorities at the presidential and the local religious community in the Syro-Catholic cathedral where 48 Catholics were martyred during Mass in 2010.
On Saturday he’s going to Najaf, a holy city for Shite Islam, where he will meet Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Later that morning, he will lead an interreligious prayer in the ruins of the City of Ur, considered the birthplace of Abraham, father of believers. Lastly, on Saturday, he will become the first pope to celebrate Mass in the Chaldean Catholic rite.
On Sunday, last full day of his visit, he will focus his attention almost exclusively on the embattled Christian community, visiting the Nineveh Plain, including the cities of Qaraqosh and Mosul, decimated by ISIS, and celebrate Mass for 10,000 people in a stadium in Erbil, capital of the northern autonomous region of Kurdistan.
He flies back to Rome early morning, and during the four-hour flight he is expected to, as usual, answer questions from the 70 reporters traveling with him.
I’ll be retweeting some of the coverage from the ground over the weekend, too, if you’re interested. Please keep this trip in your prayers, those of you who pray. It really could be monumental.
As Stephen Rasche, author of The Disappearing People: The Tragic Fate of Christians in the Middle East, released last year, puts it:
There were, within living memory, over 1.3 million Christians in Iraq. There are, by most reliable counts, fewer than 150,000 today. That is truth, and none of happened naturally. ‘”The sand has nearly run out in the hourglass that is Christianity in Iraq. Many of the other Christian communities of the Middle East are not far behind. And although there is still time left for small remnants of hope, if they are not acted upon now, this history of two thousand years will see its final chapters in our lifetimes—much of it perhaps even within this coming decade. But if any responsive, effective plan of action is to have purpose, it will need to be based in new thinking, which admits the reality of the situation, unclouded by Western aspirational paradigms, and the knee-jerk tendency to resort to claims of phobias and bias, which only serve to obscure the truth.
In his first address on the ground, Pope Francis made it clear:
I greet with affection the bishops and priests, men and women religious and all the faithful of the Catholic Church. I have come as a pilgrim to encourage them in their witness of faith, hope and love in the midst of Iraqi society.
As I write, Pope Francis is in that cathedral where Catholics were martyred. He is all about the love of Christ in their wounded hearts. It’s powerful. It was almost a year ago when the pope ministered to the world facing unknown COVID-19 pandemic. He’s ministering to our greater pandemic now. These persecuted Christians show us what Christianity is truly about.
And he’s leading in the best of ways to all. From the same address:
Religion, by its very nature, must be at the service of peace and fraternity. The name of God cannot be used “to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism and oppression” (Document on Human Fraternity, Abu Dhabi, 4 February 2019). On the contrary, God, who created human beings equal in dignity and rights, calls us to spread the values of love, good will and concord. In Iraq too, the Catholic Church desires to be a friend to all and, through interreligious dialogue, to cooperate constructively with other religions in serving the cause of peace. The age-old presence of Christians in this land, and their contributions to the life of the nation, constitute a rich heritage that they wish to continue to place at the service of all. Their participation in public life, as citizens with full rights, freedoms and responsibilities, will testify that a healthy pluralism of religious beliefs, ethnicities and cultures can contribute to the nation’s prosperity and harmony.
God bless the people of Iraq — especially the Christians and the other persecuted minorities. We’ve not always been kind to the people there, especially the Christians. Steven Howard does a good job here prodding the conscience of the Biden administration.