Pope Francis is back from his historic journey to Iraq. While we hope to publish more reflections on his journey, his encounters, and his experiences in the days and weeks ahead, I wanted to provide you with a quick round-up of stories and highlights from his trip.
When you look at his itinerary you can see that he was able accomplish much in three days. He traveled to many cities: Baghdad, Najaf, Ur, Erbil, Mosul, and Quaraqosh. His trip was filled with public liturgies and ceremonies, symbolic meetings with important leaders, and personal encounters with people. As Mark Chouman explained in his essay for WPI last week, this visit was a source of great hope and encouragement to him and his fellow Iraqi Christians, and “an affirmation that the Church hasn’t forgotten about Iraq and is willing to visit that beleaguered country where danger and instability so pervade.”
Christopher Lamb of the Tablet described Pope Francis’s meeting with Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani in the city of Najaf on Saturday morning as “a new step in Christian-Muslim relations. This is a moment that ranks alongside St John Paul II’s first official papal visits to a synagogue in 1986 and mosque in 2001.” As Adam Rasmussen mentioned in our livestream on Thursday, this meeting is especially noteworthy because it is very rare for Al-Sistani, a Shi’ite leader who has been described as reclusive, to meet with foreign leaders or non-Muslim religious figures.
Lamb’s report also quoted a statement from Al-Sistani’s office, which said that during the encounter, al-Sistani “emphasised the importance of securing a peaceful and secure life for Iraqi Christians and protecting their constitutional rights.” He also reported that following the meeting, Iraqi prime minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi declared that going forward, March 6 will be a national day of tolerance and living together.
From there, Francis headed to Ur, Abraham’s birthplace, for an interreligious ceremony. In his address, he decried those who use religion to justify hatred and violence:
From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters. Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion. We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion; indeed, we are called unambiguously to dispel all misunderstandings. Let us not allow the light of heaven to be overshadowed by the clouds of hatred!
Perhaps the pope’s most emotionally moving encounter was when he met with Abdullah Kurdi after the Mass in Erbil late Sunday evening. Kurdi was the father of Alan Kurdi, the small boy whose body, washed up on a Turkish beach, became an icon of the plight of Syrian refugees. This image of the boy—whose mother and sister also drowned—“shook the consciences of the world,” according to Linda Bordoni of Vatican News. According to a Vatican statement, Francis and he spoke through an interpreter, and the pope “was able to listen to the father’s pain for the loss of his family and express his and the Lord’s deep participation in the man’s suffering.”
Francis’s message to the people of Iraq
At the Mass in the Chaldean Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Baghdad on Saturday, Pope Francis implored the people to avoid two temptations in the face of adversity: flight and anger. He explained, that “neither flight nor the sword achieved anything. Jesus, on the other hand, changed history. How? With the humble power of love, with his patient witness. This is what we are called to do.” Recalling the Beatitudes, he reminded them how God fulfills his promises, which “guarantee unrivalled joy and never disappoint. But how are they fulfilled? Through our weaknesses. God makes blessed those who travel the path of their inner poverty to the very end.”
At Sunday’s Mass at Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil, before a congregation of 10,000 people, Francis explained that the power and wisdom of God is revealed by Christ on the Cross. Speaking to a people who have endured decades of suffering, he said, “Here in Iraq, how many of your brothers and sisters, friends and fellow citizens bear the wounds of war and violence, wounds both visible and invisible! The temptation is to react to these and other painful experiences with human power, human wisdom. Instead, Jesus shows us the way of God, the path that he took, the path on which he calls us to follow him.” Returning to the theme of how God fulfills his promises—maintaining the hope that must have at times been extremely difficult for the Iraqi Christians to maintain—he said, “Of course, 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.”
The Return Flight
During the flight from Baghdad to Rome, Pope Francis held his customary in-flight press conference. He spoke on a number of topics, including his future travels. We will conclude with some excerpts.
On the significance of his visit with Ayatollah al-Sistani
“Ayatollah al-Sistani has a phrase which I expect to remember well. Every man… men are either brothers for religion or equals for creation. And fraternity is equality, but beneath equality we cannot go.”
“Think about this. How the mentality has changed among us, because our faith makes us discover that this is it: the revelation of Jesus is love, charity, and it leads us to this…. That as men we are all brothers and we must move forward with other religions.”
“You know that there are some critics who [say] ‘the pope is not courageous, he is an idiot who is taking steps against Catholic doctrine, which is a heretical step.’ There are risks. But these decisions are always made in prayer, in dialogue, asking for advice, in reflection. They are not a whim and they are also the line that the [Second Vatican] Council has taught us.”
Will he return to Argentina?
“When will I visit Argentina? And why have I not gone there? I always answer a little ironically: ‘I spent 76 years in Argentina, that’s enough, isn’t it?’
But there is one thing. I do not know why, but it has not been said. A trip to Argentina was planned for November 2017 and work began. It was Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. This was at the end of November. But then at that time there was an election campaign happening in Chile… And then in January it was not possible to go to Argentina and Uruguay because January is like our August here.”
A possible return to the Middle East? Will he visit Lebanon or Syria?
“Lebanon is a message. Lebanon is suffering. Lebanon is more than a balance. It has the weakness of the diversity which some are still not reconciled to, but it has the strength of the great people reconciled like the fortress of the cedars. Patriarch Rai asked me to please make a stop in Beirut on this trip, but it seemed somewhat too little to me: A crumb in front of a problem in a country that suffers like Lebanon. I wrote a letter and promised to make a trip to Lebanon. But Lebanon at the moment is in crisis, but in crisis—I do not want to offend—but in a crisis of life. Lebanon is so generous in welcoming refugees. This is a second trip.”
“In the Middle East only the hypothesis, and also the promise is for Lebanon. I have not thought about a trip to Syria. I have not thought about it because the inspiration did not come to me. But I am so close to the tormented and beloved Syria, as I call it.”
The destruction in Mosul
“I did not imagine the ruins of Mosul, I did not imagine. Really. Yes, I may have seen things, I may have read the book, but this touches, it is touching.
What touched me the most was the testimony of a mother in Qaraqosh. A priest who truly knows poverty, service, penance; and a woman who lost her son in the first bombings by ISIS gave her testimony. She said one word: forgiveness. I was moved. A mother who says: I forgive, I ask forgiveness for them.”
“When I stopped in front of the destroyed church, I had no words, I had no words… beyond belief, beyond belief. Not just the church, even the other destroyed churches. Even a destroyed mosque…With our experience of Mosul, and these people who destroy everything, enmity is created and the so-called Islamic State begins to act.”
The Manufacture of Weapons
“A question that came to my mind in the church was this: ‘But who sells weapons to these destroyers?’ Because they do not make weapons at home. Yes, they will make some bombs, but who sells the weapons, who is responsible? I would at least ask that those who sell the weapons have the sincerity to say: we sell weapons. They don’t say it. It’s ugly.”
Human Trafficking and the Exploitation of Women
“Women are sold, women are enslaved. Even in the center of Rome, the work against trafficking is an everyday job.
During the Jubilee, I went to visit one of the many houses of the Opera Don Benzi: Ransomed girls, one with her ear cut off because she had not brought the right money that day, and the other brought from Bratislava in the trunk of a car, a slave, kidnapped. This happens among us, the educated. Human trafficking. In these countries, some, especially in parts of Africa, there is mutilation as a ritual that must be done. Women are still slaves, and we have to fight, struggle, for the dignity of women. They are the ones who carry history forward. This is not an exaggeration: Women carry history forward and that’s not just a compliment because today is Women’s Day.”
Image: Vatican News, Mass at Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil. Pope Francis incenses a restored statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary whose head and hands had been chopped off by Islamic militants.
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He's a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He's active in his parish and community. He is the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.