Pope Francis Calls for Interfaith Unity in Historic Visit to Iraq
In settings both intimate and theatrical, in gestures concrete and symbolic, Pope Francis on Saturday used the backdrop of ancient Mesopotamia as a powerful reminder that what binds humanity can be more powerful than what divides.
The pontiff began his second day in Iraq before dawn, boarding a flight to the holy city of Najaf, where he had a private meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the reclusive spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites.
In his historic visit to Iraq, Francis has sought to lend support to Christians in the majority-Shia country, urged Iraqi leaders to protect all minority rights and sent a message that he himself is back on the global stage after a year cooped up behind the Vatican walls because of the pandemic.
From Najaf, he traveled to the ruins of Ur, one of the world’s oldest civilizations. Tradition holds that it is the birthplace of the prophet Abraham, who affirmed belief in a single God. Judaism, Islam and Christianity all trace their roots to Abraham.
After touring a neo-Sumerian ziggurat and other ruins at the heart of what was once a grand city in Nebuchadnezzar II’s kingdom — ravaged by time and war, but still stunning and deeply evocative — the pope appealed for solidarity among members of the various faiths.
“This blessed place brings us back to our origins,” Francis said, surrounded by Christians, Muslims and members of Iraq’s many minorities. “We seem to have returned home.”
He called for peace and love, and in doing so realized a dream harbored by John Paul II, who planned to visit Iraq himself, before tensions forced him to cancel more than 20 years ago.
Francis tried to make the most of the moment, and said that “the greatest blasphemy” was the act of “hating our brothers and sisters.”
“Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: They are betrayals of religion,” he said. “We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion.”
There was no video of the meeting, and no cheering, singing crowds. But in many ways the meeting between Pope Francis and Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric in the holy city of Najaf on Saturday morning was one of the most moving of the pontiff’s whirlwind tour of Iraq.
The two elders — Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, 90, and Pope Francis, 84, each the highest religious authority among their followers — sat across from each other on simple wooden seats in the ayatollah’s modest home.
The pope is a Jesuit who eschews luxury and advocates for the poor, and Ayatollah al-Sistani a reclusive religious scholar who champions the downtrodden.
A photo released by the Vatican press office showed the pope walking down an alleyway near the ayatollah’s home, the alley barely wide enough for members of the pope’s entourage walking four abreast. Makeshift electricity lines dangled from the houses, some with windows covered with bent metal bars.
Najaf is the site of the tomb of Imam Ali, considered by Shiite Muslims the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad. For the first time in years, the shrine was closed to pilgrims because of the pope’s visit.
Ayatollah al-Sistani rarely leaves his house, and communicates to the outside world through a spokesman. Although he is Iranian, his pronouncements on Iraq carry great weight. He has been able to set elections in motion, and his withdrawal of support for Iraq’s previous prime minister, whom he felt was failing the people, left the prime minister little choice but to resign.
The meeting between the two religious leaders ran longer than expected. A statement released by Ayatollah al-Sistani’s office said the cleric had stressed that Christian citizens deserve to “live like all Iraqis in security and peace and with full constitutional rights.”
He also talked about “injustice, oppression, poverty, religious and intellectual persecution” and raised concern about the plight of displaced people in the region, “particularly the Palestinian people in the occupied territories.”
The Vatican, in its statement about the meeting, said the pope had thanked the cleric “for speaking up — together with the Shiite community — in defense of those most vulnerable and persecuted amid the violence and great hardships.”
While the visit was highly symbolic, it also aimed to signal to Shiite Muslim leaders that Christians are to be respected.
Neither cleric was pictured wearing a mask. While Francis and those traveling with him have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, Ayatollah al-Sistani has not. The ayatollah, according to a member of his office, does not want to deprive someone else of a vaccine dose and is waiting for others to be vaccinated first. His office has made it clear, however, that Ayatollah al-Sistani believes vaccination is religiously permitted.
Of all of Pope Francis’s journeys, none have taken him as close to the site of the roots of monotheistic religions as the windswept plain in southern Iraq with the remains of a 4,000-year-old temple dedicated to a moon god.
It was in Ur that the faithful believe God revealed himself to the Prophet Abraham, known since as the father of monotheistic religions.
On Saturday, Francis spoke within sight of the ziggurat there, a stepped pyramid topped by a temple — the remains of the neo-Sumerian capital where tradition has it that Abraham was born.
“Here where Abraham our father lived, we seem to have returned home,” the pope said.
Francis said that God, who had promised a 100-year-old Abraham that he would have children, told the prophet to look up to the sky and count the stars.
“In those stars he saw the promise of his descendants — he saw us,” said Francis, surrounded by Muslim and Christian leaders and representatives of ancient religious minorities.
Francis also spoke of injustice and the dispossessed.
“All too many people lack food, medicine, education, rights and dignity,” he said.
Ur is 10 miles from the provincial capital, Nasiriya, a center of antigovernment protests that in 2019 brought down a prime minister. While the protest movement has been crushed in Baghdad, in Nasiriya it continues as young people demand jobs, clean water and electricity.
Despite its religious and archaeological importance, few visitors come to Ur.
In 1999, the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ordered the remains of a home reputed as Abraham’s birthplace to be reconstructed with modern bricks and arches. The original mud bricks of the ziggurat — sealed with bitumen — remain, and some have traces of cuneiform writing.
Still, archaeologists point to a significant inconsistency in the belief that Abraham was from Ur in Iraq. He is said to have been born about 4,000 years ago, and the Bible refers to him as being from “Ur of the Chaldees” — a reference to a people who lived in Iraq 1,000 years later.
They are vanishing — the ancient religious minorities that flourished in the fertile lands that nurtured the world’s first known civilizations. And on Saturday, Pope Francis spoke on the remains of a 6,000-year-old city, surrounded by representatives from some of Iraq’s diverse faiths.
He was joined on the Plains of Ur by elders of at least four Iraqi religious minorities, including men with flowing white beards, hand-loomed shawls and oversized wool felt vests.
Rafah Alhilali was one of those to address the pope.
“I am an Iraqi Sabean Mandean who have witnessed my children, brothers, all relatives fleeing away,” she said.
Ms. Alhilali said she was determined to stay and to be buried in the land of her ancestors. The Sabean Mandean are an Indigenous Iraqi minority whom ethnographers say are at risk of disappearing as a community.
Some of their rituals, centered around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, are descended from ancient Mesopotamia. Most of the community — pacifists — were displaced from southern Iraq by violence.
One of the men in the gathering on Saturday was a Yazidi religious elder — a member of the religious minority singled out by the pope as having specifically suffered under the Islamic State. ISIS killed and enslaved thousands of them in 2014, and they have been persecuted for their beliefs for centuries.
A Kaka’i elder wore Kurdish clothing with a distinctive brown felt vest with the shoulders extending out like a yoke. Followers of the mystical, pacifist religion live mainly in northeastern Iraq and western Iran. ISIS considered the Kaka’i, along with the Yazidis, unbelievers.
And Christians, who before Islam were a majority in Iraq, are themselves disappearing — particularly from southern Iraq as the country’s rich religious diversity is hollowed out.
In the provincial capital, Nasiriya, which is about 10 miles from Ur and one of Iraq’s biggest cities, there are only two Christian families left and no functioning church.
“This is a big gain for Iraq and Nasiriya,” said Mahir Shakir, a member of one of the remaining families. “The pope came with a message of peace and love between all religions.”
— Jane Arraf and Falih Hassan
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Since Peter’s journey to Rome, traditionally dated to 44 A.D., trips taken by popes — known as the Vicars of Christ — have played an integral role in shaping how the world sees the Roman Catholic Church.
They also reflect the way popes see their role in the world.
The modern era of the papal trip began in October 1962, when John XXIII boarded a train at the tiny Vatican rail station to visit the Holy House of Loreto and the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. It was the first time a pope had left Rome since 1857, according to historians, after Pius IX famously declared himself a “prisoner of the Vatican” in 1870 to protest the loss of the Papal States.
Last week, a few days before Pope Francis traveled to Iraq, reporters asked the Vatican’s spokesman whether any Jewish rabbis would be participating in the visit’s centerpiece event — an interreligious meeting at the Plain of Ur, which tradition holds is the birthplace of Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths.
The spokesman, Matteo Bruni, said that he didn’t know whether any rabbis would take part, but that he was sure some Jews would attend.
Yet in a country where a once vibrant Jewish population faded and eventually all but vanished after years of persecution and pogroms, that was no easy task.
Just over half a century ago, Iraq’s Jews numbered more than 130,000. The are now perhaps a dozen — a number that is hard to verify, since for years the Jews who remained were often careful not to reveal their identity for fear of violence.
At Saturday’s carefully choreographed papal event in a place that Jews called homes for thousands of years, no Jews participated in the ceremony, according to local church officials.
The Rev. Alberty Hisham, the coordinator for the papal visit for Iraq’s Catholic Church, which organized the event, said the planners had reached out to all of the Iraqi Jews they could identify.
“We invited them, but there are so few of them — maybe 10 or 12 people,” he said.
The absence was all the more striking because of the setting: a land dotted with places mentioned in the Hebrew Bible that were once popular pilgrimage sites for Jews.
In the town of Alqosh, there is a tomb said to belong to Nahum, a biblical prophet believed to have lived in the region nearly three millenniums ago.
The tomb, which was at some point converted into a synagogue, bears markings in Hebrew that read, “This will be your dwelling place forever.”
The scars were still there for Pope Francis to see: bullet holes on the walls of Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, tangible reminders of a 2010 attack that accelerated an exodus of Christians from Iraq and tore at the heart of the community.
On Friday, light streamed in through the colored stained glass, illuminating the Arab script on the wood-paneled walls and falling on the masked clergy, nuns and seminarians who were distanced three to a pew.
A roar of joy could be heard outside when the pope — surrounded by guards and watched over by rooftop soldiers with heavy weaponry — arrived to greet the faithful outside the church.
As the pope walked into the church, making the sign of the cross, the church erupted in ululations and traditional music.
He shuffled down the red-carpeted central nave, followed by local priests, and took a seat on a wooden throne before the altar. There, Francis heard local bishops speak of the massacre of dozens of people and the general persecution of Christians in Iraq.
But Francis needed no reminding.
“We are gathered in this Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, hallowed by the blood of our brothers and sisters who here paid the ultimate price of their fidelity to the Lord and his church,” Francis said.
At least 56 people were killed in that 2010 attack, including worshipers, two priests, members of the security forces and bystanders.
Christians had been leaving Iraq since 2003, when the United States’ toppling of Saddam Hussein created a security vacuum. The rise of armed groups then led to a civil war. And the church attack was a stark reminder of the security forces’ limited ability to protect Christians and other Iraqis.
Francis on Friday acknowledged that the “daunting pastoral challenges that you daily face have been aggravated in this time of pandemic.” But, he said, despite the limitations of the pandemic, the faith of Christians should not be contained.
“We know how easy it is to be infected by the virus of discouragement that at times seems to spread all around us,” he said, adding that God had provided them with a faith that is “an effective vaccine” against that proverbial virus.
He acknowledged the hardships had driven so many Christians out of Iraq, but urged those present to think of the future, and the future of the church, by supporting young people.
As Pope Francis visits Iraq, there are growing fears among Christians that the string of ancient Christian towns across northern Iraq are losing their traditional Christian character and that their faith is in danger of disappearing from the Muslim-majority country.
A steady exodus of Christians that began after the U.S. invasion in 2003 has accelerated since the Islamic State was driven out of Iraq in 2017. The pope’s visit is a show of solidarity with the country’s remaining Christians, whose numbers have shrunk to less than one-third of the 1.5 million who lived there in Saddam Hussein’s time.
Bartella is one of about a dozen historically Christian towns on the Nineveh Plains, where the apostle Saint Thomas is said to have converted the polytheistic population just decades after the death of Jesus. Many Christians there still speak a form of Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
In Bartella, they are now a minority, fewer than 3,000 in a town of 18,000. As in most of Iraq, Shiite Muslims predominate.
But in Bartella, there’s a demographic twist. The majority there belong to another Iraqi minority, the Shabak, a small ethnic and linguistic group, mostly Shiite Muslims, that is waging its own fight for recognition.
The Shabak formed a militia that ultimately helped retake the town from the Islamic State in 2016. By then much of it was in ruins. Church officials say that most Christians have not returned.
In St. George Syriac Catholic Church, a glass case lined with white satin holds a face of the Virgin Mary with her nose broken, burned chalices and a plaster Jesus on the cross broken off at the torso, all reminders of the damage inflicted by ISIS.
“If anyone came to Bartella right after the liberation, he would think this city would never come back because of the level of destruction,” said Ali Iskander, a Shabak and chief of the Bartella district, the de factor mayor.
It was then that the Iraqi government, fearing that historic Christian towns could lose their identity, granted church officials in Bartella and another town, Qaraqosh, the power to regulate development.
The pope plans to visit a church in Qaraqosh on Sunday.
In 2015, when the Islamic State’s bloody rampage was on the rise, Eliza Griswold chronicled the decimation of the Christian community in the region for The New York Times Magazine. Below is an excerpt that offers historical perspective on Christianity in Iraq.
Most of Iraq’s Christians call themselves Assyrians, Chaldeans or Syriac, different names for a common ethnicity rooted in the Mesopotamian kingdoms that flourished between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers thousands of years before Jesus.
Christianity arrived during the first century, according to Eusebius, an early church historian who claimed to have translated letters between Jesus and a Mesopotamian king. Tradition holds that Thomas, one of the Twelve Apostles, sent Thaddeus, an early Jewish convert, to Mesopotamia to preach the Gospel.
As Christianity grew, it coexisted alongside older traditions — Judaism, Zoroastrianism and the monotheism of the Druze, Yazidis and Mandeans, among others — all of which survive in the region, though in vastly diminished form.
From Greece to Egypt, this was the eastern half of Christendom, a fractious community divided by doctrinal differences that persist today: various Catholic churches (those who look to Rome for guidance, and those who don’t); the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox (those who believe Jesus has two natures, human and divine, and those who believe he was solely divine); and the Assyrian Church of the East, which is neither Catholic nor Orthodox.
When the first Islamic armies arrived from the Arabian Peninsula during the seventh century, the Assyrian Church of the East was sending missionaries to China, India and Mongolia. The shift from Christianity to Islam happened gradually. Much as the worship of Eastern cults largely gave way to Christianity, Christianity gave way to Islam.
Under Islamic rule, Eastern Christians lived as protected people, dhimmi: They were subservient and had to pay the jizya, but were often allowed to observe practices forbidden by Islam, including eating pork and drinking alcohol. Muslim rulers tended to be more tolerant of minorities than their Christian counterparts, and for 1,500 years, different religions thrived side by side.
One hundred years ago, the fall of the Ottoman Empire and World War I ushered in the greatest period of violence against Christians in the region. The genocide waged by the Young Turks in the name of nationalism, not religion, left at least two million Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks dead. Nearly all were Christian.
Among those who survived, many of the better educated left for the West. Others settled in Iraq and Syria, where they were protected by the military dictators who courted these often economically powerful minorities.
From 1910 to 2010, the percentage of the Middle Eastern population that was Christian — in countries like Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Jordan — continued to decline.
For more than a decade, extremists have targeted Christians and other minorities, who often serve as stand-ins for the West. This was especially true in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, which caused hundreds of thousands to flee.
With the fall of Saddam Hussein, Christians began to leave Iraq in large numbers, and the population shrank to less than 500,000 today from as many as 1.5 million in 2003.