From March 5 to 8, 2021, Pope Francis visited Iraq. It was a visit that was full of events and significance. Over three days, he visited six cities and participated in seven major events. Here is a snapshot of the many addresses, speeches, and homilies.
Meeting With Civil Authorities – Baghdad
On March 5, Pope Francis met with Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and President Barham Salih, and other civil authorities and the diplomatic corps of Iraq. President Salih spoke first and told the pope, “We are living through a historic opportunity to reaffirm the values of love, living together, welcoming one another and supporting diversity."
From Pope Francis:
“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.” Read the full address.
Meeting with Bishops, Priests, Religious, and Seminarians – Baghdad
Following the meeting with civil authorities, Pope Francis ended his first day in Iraq at the Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad. There he met with bishops, priests, religious, consecrated persons, seminarians, and catechists.
“The love of Christ summons us to set aside every kind of self-centredness or competition; it impels us to universal communion and challenges us to form a community of brothers and sisters who accept and care for one another. Here I think of the familiar image of a carpet. The different Churches present in Iraq, each with its age-old historical, liturgical and spiritual patrimony, are like so many individual coloured threads that, woven together, make up a single beautiful carpet, one that displays not only our fraternity but points also to its source. For God himself is the artist who imagined this carpet, patiently wove it and carefully mends it, desiring us ever to remain closely knit as his sons and daughters.”
“Let me mention once more our brothers and sisters who died in the terrorist attack in this Cathedral some ten years ago and whose cause for beatification is underway. Their deaths are a powerful reminder that inciting war, hateful attitudes, violence or the shedding of blood are incompatible with authentic religious teachings. I also want to remember all the victims of violence and persecution, regardless of the religious group to which they belong.” Read the full address.
Meeting With the Ayatollah – Najaf
The following morning, March 6, the Holy Father travelled to the holy city of Najaf and met with Shi'ite Muslim leader Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani. The 45-minute meeting was private, and no formal addresses were recorded. However, following the meeting, al-Sistani released an official statement that affirmed that Christians should “live like all Iraqis, in security and peace and with full constitutional rights.” The statement continued by pointing out the “role that the religious authority plays in protecting them, and others who have also suffered injustice and harm in the events of past years.”
In a statement, the Vatican explained that 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.” Pope Francis recalled the meeting afterwards saying that al-Sistani is a “great man, a wise man, a man of God.”
Interreligious Meeting – Ur
Afterwards, Pope Francis continued on to Ur of the Chaldeans, the birthplace of Abraham, where he participated in an interreligious prayer gathering and reminded all that “we are the fruits of Abraham’s journey....”
“Anyone with the courage to look at the stars, anyone who believes in God, has no enemies to fight. He or she has only one enemy to face, an enemy that stands at the door of the heart and knocks to enter. That enemy is hatred
. While some try to have enemies more than to be friends, while many seek their own profit at the expense of others, those who look at the stars of the promise, those who follow the ways of God, cannot be against
someone, but for
everyone. They cannot justify any form of imposition, oppression and abuse of power; they cannot adopt an attitude of belligerence.” Read the full address.
Mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of St. Joseph – Baghdad
Saturday’s events concluded with Mass in the Chaldean Cathedral of St. Joseph in Baghdad. This was the first time a pope has celebrated Mass in the Chaldean rite. The Gospel was from Matthew 5, the Beatitudes.
“The poor, those who mourn, the persecuted are all called blessed. How is this possible? For the world, it is the rich, the powerful and the famous who are blessed! It is those with wealth and means who count! But not for God: It is no longer the rich that are great, but the poor in spirit; not those who can impose their will on others, but those who are gentle with all. Not those acclaimed by the crowds, but those who show mercy to their brother and sisters. At this point, we may wonder: if I live as Jesus asks, what do I gain? Don’t I risk letting others lord it over me? Is Jesus’ invitation worthwhile, or a lost cause? That invitation is not worthless, but wise.”
“We experience trials, and we frequently fall, but let us not forget that, with Jesus, we are blessed. Whatever the world takes from us is nothing compared to the tender and patient love with which the Lord fulfils his promises. Dear sister, dear brother, perhaps when you look at your hands they seem empty, perhaps you feel disheartened and unsatisfied by life. If so, do not be afraid: the Beatitudes are for you. For you who are afflicted, who hunger and thirst for justice, who are persecuted. The Lord promises you that your name is written on his heart, written in heaven!” Read the full homily.
At the end of the Mass, His Beatitude Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako addressed the Holy Father saying, "For us Christians, this visit is an opportunity to make a pilgrimage to our first roots, for a conversion, and to maintain our Iraqi and Christian identity." He added, “It is a time of steadfastness and of fidelity in the footsteps of Abraham, our father, with his love, his faith, his patience, and in the footsteps of St. Thomas, apostle of our country, with his prostration and his ardor: ‘My Lord and my God’, (Jn 20:28). Therefore, we should not let your visit and your words go unnoticed, without leaving a mark on us, in our churches and in our country.”
Prayer of Suffrage for the Victims of the War – Mosul
On Sunday morning, March 7, the Holy Father travelled to Mosul. At Church Square, in the midst of the ruins of four churches, he listened to several testimonies and then prayed for the spread of peace and justice, serene coexistence and human fraternity and remembered all victims of war. Before the prayer, he spoke:
“Today we raise our voices in prayer to Almighty God for all the victims of war and armed conflict. Here in Mosul, the tragic consequences of war and hostility are all too evident. How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people – Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others – forcibly displaced or killed! Today, however, we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war. This conviction speaks with greater eloquence than the passing voices of hatred and violence, and it can never be silenced by the blood spilled by those who pervert the name of God to pursue paths of destruction.”
The prayer began with this simple catechesis:
If God is the God of life – for so he is – then it is wrong for us to kill our brothers and sisters in his Name.
If God is the God of peace – for so he is – then it is wrong for us to wage war in his Name.
If God is the God of love – for so he is – then it is wrong for us to hate our brothers and sisters.
Read the full address and prayer.
Visit to the Qaraqosh Community
From Mosul, Pope Francis travelled to nearby Qaraqosh where he visited the newly rebuilt Syriac Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception – a church that was desecrated and destroyed in 2014. Here he also listened to several testimonies. One was from Mrs. Doha Sabah Abdallah who shared how on the morning when ISIS forces arrived, “the children were playing in front of our houses when an accident took place. We heard a strong explosion, and I ran outside of my house. The voices of the children fell silent, and the screams of the adults increased. And those voices told me that my son was killed and his cousin, and of our young neighbour who was preparing for marriage. The martyrdom of these three angels was a clear warning to all of us. Were it not for that, the people of Qaraqosh would have remained, and we would have all inevitably fallen into the hands of ISIS. The death of those three angels saved the entire city. It is not easy for me to accept this reality. But our strength comes from our faith, our faith in the Resurrection, our faith that our children today are in the arms of Jesus. And we, those who have survived, we try to forgive the aggressors because Jesus, our master, forgave his executioners. Imitating him in our sufferings, we want to testify that love is stronger than everything.”
Pope Francis spoke:
“Forgiveness is necessary to remain in love, to remain Christian. The road to a full recovery may still be long, but I ask you, please, not to grow discouraged. What is needed is the ability to forgive, but also the courage not to give up. I know that this is very difficult. But we believe that God can bring peace to this land. We trust in him and, together with all people of good will, we say ‘no’ to terrorism and the manipulation of religion.” Read the full address.
At the end of the gathering, Pope Francis signed the Cathedral’s guest book:
“From this Church, destroyed and rebuilt, a symbol of the hope of Qaraqosh and of all Iraq,
I ask of God, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, the gift of peace.
Holy Mass – Erbil
The last event of this historic visit to Iraq was in the city of Erbil, where Pope Francis celebrated Mass for 10,000 people at the Franso Hariri Stadium. The Gospel reading was from John 2:13-15 where Jesus says, “destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days.”
“Jesus could not tolerate his Father’s house becoming a marketplace (cf. Jn 2:16); neither does he want our hearts to be places of turmoil, disorder and confusion. Our heart must be cleansed, put in order and purified. Of what? Of the falsehoods that stain it, from hypocritical duplicity. All of us have these. They are diseases that harm the heart, soil our lives and make them insincere. We need to be cleansed of the deceptive securities that would barter our faith in God with passing things, with temporary advantages. We need the baneful temptations of power and money to be swept from our hearts and from the Church. To cleanse our hearts, we need to dirty our hands, to feel accountable and not to simply look on as our brothers and sisters are suffering. How do we purify our hearts? By our own efforts, we cannot; we need Jesus. He has the power to conquer our evils, to heal our diseases, to rebuild the temple of our heart.” Read the full homily.
At the conclusion of Mass, the Holy Father delivered a special greeting:
“Now the time draws near for my return to Rome. Yet Iraq will always remain with me, in my heart. I ask all of you, dear brothers and sisters, to work together in unity for a future of peace and prosperity that leaves no one behind and discriminates against no one. I assure you of my prayers for this beloved country. In a particular way, I pray that the members of the various religious communities, together with all men and women of good will, may work together to forge bonds of fraternity and solidarity in the service of the common good and of peace salam, salam, salam
[Thank you]! May God bless you all! May God bless Iraq! Allah ma’akum!
[God be with you!]”