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Pope Francis' visit to Iraq: The courage of dialogue and peace

Francis Denis

Monday, February 22, 2021

From March 5 to 8, Pope Francis will travel to Iraq for an apostolic journey. Described by many as an historic event, the pope's presence in circumstances of pandemic and political instability should not surprise us. Since the beginning of his pontificate, the Holy Father has never ceased to give us examples of fidelity to the bold breath of the Spirit. Thus, whether by the witness of his closeness to the Catholics of the region, by this concrete gesture in the service of the humanitarian emergency facing Iraqi Catholics, or by his dedication to the building of a culture of dialogue, this first trip of the Supreme Pontiff in 2021 will have a highly prophetic character.
The urgency of closeness
The situation in Iraq is certainly not an enviable one. For several decades, numerous conflicts have bruised this country considered the cradle of humanity. Recently, the conflict in Syria and the birth of the armed group ISIS have increased the suffering there, especially among Christians. In this context, Catholics have been one of the prime targets of terrorist organizations, and the unbearable persecution has forced a large part of the population into exile.
This mass departure of Christians from the Middle East obviously has also caused trauma and deep wounds. Pastors are the first to bear witness to this tragedy. While they cannot help but understand the painful choice of many of the faithful to leave because they cannot guarantee the security of their families, those who remain are nevertheless weakened, if not further marginalized.
In addition to all this, the Christian presence is native to the Middle East and predates by several centuries the arrival of the Muslim religion. Encouraging the maintenance of a strong Catholic presence in Iraq without judging those who have left is no small matter. Nevertheless, it is essential to the cultural and political stability of this country. Knowing Pope Francis’ involvement in favour of migrants in Europe, this task of encouraging Christians to stay on their land will be a difficult exercise. It will require the highest pastoral abilities of the Bishop of Rome!
A diplomacy of peace
Although primarily pastoral, that is, intended for Catholics, to testify his closeness to them through a comforting and prayerful presence, the pope's trip to Iraq is also intended to assure them of respect for their fundamental human rights. In this sense, several meetings are being organized with dignitaries and political leaders of the Iraqi Republic. In particular, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazimi will have the opportunity to officially receive Pope Francis on Friday, March 5.
During these meetings, in addition to official exchanges and diplomatic gestures, we can expect, both behind the scenes and in official speeches, that the pope will make the urgency of peace felt. For the pope, the establishment of a true climate of peace is impossible without the contribution of an enlightened vision of citizenship that "is based on the equality of rights and duties, under which all enjoy justice". Religious differences aside, all the citizens of the Republic of Iraq must, together, set to work to rebuild their country. The presence of the pope could be a pivotal event in this regard.
The imperative of dialogue
By visiting this country, the pope makes himself an example of that culture of encounter which, through "dialogue, understanding and the widespread promotion of a culture of tolerance, acceptance of others and of living together peacefully would contribute significantly to reducing many economic, social, political and environmental problems that weigh so heavily on a large part of humanity" (A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together). As was the case during his trip to Abu Dhabi, this trip to Iraq will be an opportunity for him to continue the dialogue with leaders of several Muslim denominations.
At first glance, this openness to inter-religious encounters is nothing new. The fruits of the Second Vatican Council have accustomed us to this fraternity of popes towards the leaders of other religions. This time, however, it has a special character, since many of the abuses suffered by Christians have been committed in the name of an erroneous vision of Islam. In fact, as the Document on Human Fraternity, which was signed by certain prominent Muslim representatives, states: "Moreover, we resolutely declare that religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood."
No people on earth can claim a greater identification with Christ crucified than the Christians of Iraq. Who, then, can judge the resentment felt by those who have suffered the worst atrocities? The pope will therefore have to seek to reconcile this thirst for justice on the part of Iraqi Christians with Jesus' exhortation to forgiveness. This balance, which, from a human perspective, seems almost impossible to achieve, can nevertheless be assured the support of Providence. Pope Francis thus manifests to the world his deep rootedness in the Word of God, which states that "where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more" (Romans 5:20). This dimension of the journey will certainly be worth watching.
Encountering God's dreams
It is immediately understandable that the pope's visit to Iraq will certainly not be a relaxing one. In a short period of time, he will be almost constantly on the move, going from meeting to meeting. We might also wonder if he couldn’t have waited for a better time to go there – a safer, more "reasonable" time. Looking at it from the outside and by the standards of the world, it would seem so. But, as the Letter of James says, "mercy triumphs over judgment" (2:13). The pope, therefore, considered that priority should be given to those who suffer more, whatever the cost.
During these few days, the whole world will witness a shepherd ready to do anything for his sheep. Whether it be through the witness of his affection for those Catholics who identify with the Cross, through diplomatic work in the service of humanitarian emergencies, or through a desire to draw closer to our Muslim brothers, the pope's trip to Iraq will leave the mark of a man entirely devoted to the cause of peace. Let us pray that this pilgrimage will bear the fruits that reside in the heart of God and that, through the collaboration of all Iraqis, his dreams of "peace and reconciliation" will become a reality.

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