Pope Francis’s trip to Iraq has been one of the most energizing moments in recent Iraqi history. A moment of jubilation and hope that one analyst likened to the brief euphoria felt when Iraqi won the Asian Cup in 2007. Unfortunately, moments like this are few and far between in a country that is well known as one of the most dangerous in the world and whose citizenry is continuing to suffer tremendously. Francis’s visit to Iraq, from the moment he stepped out of the plane at Baghdad airport to the moment he left Erbil’s Franso Hariri football stadium, was a trip loaded with symbolic meaning and a call to fraternity and peace. Moments that carry weight beyond simple actions showcasing curtesy, towards tangible instances of addressing the current situation Iraqis, including notably Iraqi Christians, find themselves in—and firmly placing the Pontiff on the side of the Iraqi people and their struggles. To that effect, Francis’s visit to Iraq should not be viewed as a one-off occasion of deference to a country with a suffering population but a statement of solidarity with Iraqis—Christian and non-Christian—and a call towards further action inspired by the words and gestures of the pope.
Of course, those all-too-common cynical declarations that “this won’t change anything” were still present in social media, but these were drowned out by the continuous waves of excitement and the moment-to-moment coverage of whatever Francis said or did during the trip. From the moment when Francis greeted Iraqi people representing different communities, each dressed up in their traditional attire, to his historic meeting with Ali al-Sistani, to the striking images whenever he stood beside a destroyed or heavily-damaged church, to when he kissed an Iraqi flag stained with a blood of a deceased protestor, Iraqis stood in awe. And more than that—they had a moment to celebrate. A moment to cherish, and a second to breathe.
Does It Really Make a Difference?
Many people will ask: does this trip mean anything? Will it have any long-lasting consequence in the realm of Iraq’s political reality or in the social and economic condition of any Iraqi? Will co-existence and fraternity become a reality?
Maybe this the wrong attitude to take when considering the ramifications of this trip. The pope, although he can be a force for political change, is not a politician or a policy advisor. Quick and tidy policy change in a country so tied up in patrimonialism and corrupt political practices cannot be expected of him. Strong-armed militia groups are still a reality in the country—sadly, some of them were granted the opportunity to meet Francis during the trip.
Pope Francis also encountered several notoriously corrupt politicians, who were granted audiences with him due to their status as members of Iraq’s political elite, and unfortunately many of them currently reign over important offices of the State. As an Iraqi Christian, it was unsettling to see figures like Masoud Barzani—the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party and a man responsible for abandoning the Yazidis at the height of the ISIS insurgency as well as encroaching into Chaldean, Syriac, and Assyrian Christian villages—allowed to meet with the pope, boldly promising future religious coexistence in the Kurdish autonomous region despite never proposing any concrete reforms.
Does this type of manipulation by political forces render the pope’s visit useless? That really depends on all of us. I hardly think that Pope Francis is unaware of the corruption and violence that plagues the Iraqi State, but that did not stop him from continuously stressing the importance of faith and hope. Pope Francis is not a diplomat, and although he can be diplomatic, he is above all a religious figure held in great esteem by Iraqis of all religious backgrounds, and he is the chief pastor of all Catholics around the world. This is only one aspect of his presence in Iraq, and that should not be understated. Pope Francis made it clear to all Iraqi Christians, that through all the suffering undergone by the martyred Church in Iraq, there is still Christ, and in him is liberation. He made it clear that there is no wisdom in seeking hostility and meeting violence with more violence.
That this was certainly not a passive statement. Indeed, at the end of his homily on Sunday in Erbil, he urged Iraqis to work together in unity. To work.
What Does it Mean to ‘Move Forward’ After the Visit?
Now, what comes next is equally important—genuine solidarity from Catholics in the West and international advocacy built upon Catholic social justice principles. It is not enough to just rebuild churches or tokenize Chaldeans and other Iraqi Christians. There is hard work that needs be done.
The hard work of addressing corruption in the state and standing up for the rights of Iraqi Christians needs to be done. At this moment, Iraqi Christians and the country’s other minority groups are in desperate need of increased political representation and meaningful support. For a moment, the pope’s visit directed the focus of Catholics around the world on Iraq. This moment gave the entire world the opportunity to recognize the suffering of Iraqi Christians, and to empathize with their situation. That’s the heart of this trip for me: Francis pointing and saying, look at this— look at Iraq! It’s so easy to be negative and make banal statements about how “this doesn’t change anything.” It’s harder to take those symbols and actions from the papal visit and do the work to make them even more meaningful and to extend support and fraternity.
Will there be any sort of insta-peace now that the Pope has left Iraq? Of course not. But it’s hardly possible for the pope to even begin to untangle the layers and layers of corruption and ineptitude that afflicted Iraq and Kurdistan since 2003. Christians in the region have no illusions about this, and I don’t think they even saw that as the point of the visit. The papal visit was about symbols and acts of solidarity. It was about the moments that encouraged and sanctified Iraqi Christians and their places of worship. This was a moment of renewal that they desperately needed. A community so weary of individuals and groups who promise success and instant stability were met with something much more real. When Francis visited those Churches lying in rubble, he wasn’t standing in front of a glossy new church to boast about rebuilding and a new future—he was suffering for a moment with a martyred Church. That’s important too.
During this visit, he reminded Iraqis about Christ’s promises. Aren’t those promises so much more meaningful and urgent for a group that has been bombarded with false promises and cyclical conflicts for years?
My favorite moment of Francis’s trip was at Franso Hariri stadium when the Chaldean prayer ‘Shim’d Baba ow Brona’ was sung just as Pope Francis was leaving the stage. He had just assured the congregation (and everyone in the country) that Iraq will remain in his heart. This is a prayer that I remember my late archbishop—a pious and influential figure in my religious life—singing after Sunday Mass as the sub-deacons and servers left the altar to change out of their albs. It’s a prayer that signifies for me the end of one beautiful moment with the promise that another one will surely come. How fitting is it that it was the same prayer that was sung at a final moment in Francis’s trip. What this moment said to me was that the pope was now leaving Iraq, but more moments of solidarity, hope, and tangible action will come. And that we are also responsible for facilitating those moments, akin to deacons and altar servers. It was a moment that invited us to act upon the symbols and messages we received during this visit of Pope Francis to Iraq.
The Pope has left Iraq, but is that it? I have hope that it’s not.
Image: From prayer service in Mosul for all the victims of war, in Iraq and in the entire Middle East. Vatican photo