Iraqi priests lead Christmas Eve Mass at the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception in the predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh, in Nineveh province, Dec. 24, 2019. (Photo: AFP)
If the Abraham Accords brought together the Jews and the Muslims this year, Pope Francis, with his proposed visit to Iraq, has added the third missing commonality factor to the three great Abrahamic religions.
Pope Francis will become the first pontiff to set foot on the conflict-stricken Iraqi soil to show solidarity with its persecuted Christian minority and promote peace in the Middle East and inter-religious harmony.
The pope, who turns 84 this month, will begin his historic Iraqi itinerary from March 5 next year, which will take him to the city of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, during his four-day stay in the Middle Eastern country, which is limping back to normalcy after the US-led war and illegal occupation by the Islamic Caliphate (ISIS).
The pope is embarking on a foreign trip after a 15-month hiatus due to Covid-19 restrictions. The Holy See press office said the trip “will take into consideration” the “worldwide health emergency.” In the midst of the pandemic, the pope is taking a calculated risk as he had done during his visit to war-torn Africa.
Land of Old Testament
Iraq and its interfaith importance were first noticed by St John Paul II, who wanted to visit the land of the Old Testament in 2000. His papal visit never took place due to the opposition by then Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
Iraq holds the distinction of speaking Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. His trip will showcase the commonalities between the three Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism – and the importance of inter-faith dialogue between those who are at loggerheads in many parts of the world, particularly Asia.
In September, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords at the White House in the US to normalize ties.
Pope Francis’ visit highlights the plight of dwindling Christians in the country over the last two decades due to the atrocities committed by ISIS and the economic fallout of the US-led war. Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the number of Christians has dwindled to 250,000 from 1.5 million, leaving the ancient community close to extinction.
Catholics in Iraq owe allegiance to the Chaldean Church, which is led by Cardinal Louis Sako, the Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans. The pope made him a cardinal in 2018 which has bought the ordeal of the displaced Christians to the forefront.
The Iraqi government’s plea to Christians, who have fled the country, to return and help rebuild the nation have fallen on deaf ears as the country is facing a severe economic crisis, corruption, and the plight of 1.7 million internally displaced people. According to UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, some 4 million Iraqis need humanitarian assistance, half of whom are children.
Iraq’s ancient Christian communities – Assyrian, Armenian, Chaldean, and Protestant – were directly targeted by ISIS. One of the horrific attacks took place in 2010 when terrorists took hostage and eventually killed dozens of Christians at the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad.
In 2014, ISIS swept across Nineveh province, the main hub of Iraq’s minorities. The jihadists also targeted the esoteric Yazidis, Shia Turkmen and other communities.
"His Holiness will come to visit us in Iraq to bring us his support and also a word of hope,” Cardinal Sako said, welcoming the upcoming papal visit.
Iraq defeated ISIS three years ago, but threats, kidnappings, extortion, and deaths still persist.
As the economic outlook of Iraq is hit hard by the twin shocks of the fall in oil prices and the pandemic, displaced Christians are reluctant to undertake a homecoming to a collapsing economy.
Sectarian violence is another reason which holds back Christians from returning. Constant fighting among Sunnis, Shias and Kurds for supremacy has complicated the political debate.
With his proposed visit, the pope is planning to bring dialogue and the promotion of a culture of tolerance to the war-ravaged nation.
Maybe the pontiff can learn a few tips from St. Francis of Assisi whom the Argentinean pope holds in great esteem. Francis of Assisi met Sultan Al-Kamil of Egypt in the early 13th century. When Francis Assisi met Sultan Al-Kamil in 1219, Christians and Muslims were waging the crusades to take control of the Holy City of Jerusalem.
Though Christians and the Muslim majority in the Middle East are not at war at present, the latter always looks at the Christian minority with suspicion and treats them as second-class citizens.
Of course, the papal visit can help dissipate this suspicion and mistreatment of Christians in the Middle East.