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The land of Abraham, the Iraq the Pope wants to visit

The apostolic journey to Iraq, a land of millenary faith linked to the memory of Abraham, prophet of Christians, Muslims and Jews, bathed a thousand times in blood and pain, was fervently desired by the Pope. 

Rafael Miner-January 28, 2021-Reading time: 8 minutes
girls in Mosul

Jesus' expression, "You are all brothers"taken from a verse from the Gospel of St. Matthew (Mt 23:8), was chosen as the official motto for Pope Francis' visit to Iraq, scheduled for March 5-8. These words of Jesus, written in Arabic, frame the logo of the visit, unveiled by the Chaldean Patriarchate in Baghdad in mid-January, and reflect the background of the papal visit.

The logo, on a white background, shows a photo of the Pope waving, next to a drawing of the map of Iraq, crossed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The image of a palm tree and a white dove next to the flags of the Republic of Iraq and of the Vatican, bearing the olive branch, symbol of peace, complete the symbolism of the logo, which intentionally refers to the title of Pope Francis' latest encyclical, "Brothers all" (Fratelli tutti).

In his message for the World Day of Peace on January 1 of this year, the Holy Father Francis recalled that ".2020 was a difficult year for everyone, especially due to the impact of the pandemic and conflicts."and later on he specifically mentioned Iraq: "On this day I ask you to pray for peace to come into the hearts of men in Iraq, in the Middle East and throughout the world, and for the walls of hatred and violence to fall forever.".

On the occasion of this message, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Baghdad and president of the Iraqi Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, expressly asked: "The message was sent to the Iraqi Bishops' Conference.Pray for the success of Pope Francis' visit to our country, so that Iraq may find in it the necessary strength to be a new nation, different from what it was before", and so that "the walls of hatred and violence fall down forever".

In addition, the Chaldean Patriarch, in a message addressed to "to Christians and to all Iraqis"He had expressed the hope that the announced apostolic visit of Pope Francis to Iraq would be for the baptized Iraqis and for the whole of the Middle East a providential opportunity to make an "pilgrimage"and a "return to our earliest sourcesThe Fides news agency reported that the "new" missionaries have been able to "announce with greater enthusiasm the salvation promised in the Gospel, for the benefit of all".

"Father in the faith" by autonomasia.

In explaining the context of this apostolic journey, some observers recall that St. John Paul II wished to visit Iraq in December 1999. The visit to Ur of the Chaldees was to be the first stage of his Jubilee pilgrimage for the year 2000. But it could not take place, because President Saddam Hussein decided to postpone it. "Conscious of their inseparable bond with the ancient people of the Covenant, Christians recognize in Abraham the "father in faith" par excellence, and are happy to imitate his example, following in his footsteps."St. John Paul II said at the General Audience of February 16, 2000. After making some considerations, he added: "In the name of the whole Church, I would have liked to go to Ur of the Chaldeans, the place from which Abraham set out on his journey, to pray and reflect. Since it has not been possible for me, I would like to make, at least spiritually, a similar pilgrimage.". And he did it a few weeks later, in March, during a special celebration in the Paul VI Hall, where the most important moments of Abraham's faith experience were relived.

Encouraging the Christian community

Twenty years later, visiting the land of Abraham is one of the main motives for Pope Francis' trip, perhaps the most remote and profound, looking at the whole of Christianity. Among the closest, it is certainly to encourage the Christian community.

As is well known, "in recent years Christians and Yazidis, especially from the Nineveh Plain and Mosul and neighboring towns and cities, have been forcibly displaced to various countries around the world as a result of terrorist acts carried out by ISIS (also called Daesh) at the time."Rif 'at Bader, director of the Catholic Center for Studies and Media (CCSM).

Consequently, "Pope Francis is coming to Iraq first and foremost to encourage the Christian community in Iraq which has withstood the political turbulence that has taken place including foreign wars or internal strife. There is still a bright and glorious Christian presence despite the dramatic decline in numbers.". "Encouraging those who remain steadfast in the land of their ancestors despite successive disasters."Bader adds, "....especially during his scheduled visit to the city of Erbil, where there are currently a good number of forcibly displaced people from Mosul and the villages of the Nineveh plain. His Holiness will also visit Mosul and Qaraqosh municipality to further encourage forcibly displaced people living abroad to return if possible to the land of their ancestors and grandparents".

In Iraq, before 2003, the year of the conflict that led to the fall of Saddam Hussein, the number of Christians ranged between 1.3 and 1.4 million people. Then, between 2014 and 2017, the war and the Daesh occupation of the Nineveh Plain reduced that number to around 400,000 people. Now, President Barham Sali has stressed the value of Christians and their role.

In the same vein is the Prime Minister, Mustafa Al-Kazemi, who has invited Christians who fled Iraq because of the violence to return to contribute to the reconstruction.

A gesture in the face of challenges

However, the construction of peace, security and stability remains open. Proof of this is the recent attack in Baghdad that left at least 32 people dead and more than 100 wounded. Moreover, the economic crisis and unemployment, which affect more than 1.5 million internally displaced persons, are putting development projects to the test.

The Covid-19 pandemic, which is also being an obstacle to the visit, to the point of making the Pope himself doubtful, has left thousands of victims. "Pope Francis is an open man, a seeker of peace and fraternity. Everyone in Iraq, Christians and Muslims, esteem him for his simplicity and closeness.", declared Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako to the SIR agency a year ago. "His words touch the hearts of all because they are those of a shepherd. He is a man who can bring peace. Many millions of Muslims followed the Pontiff's visit to Abu Dhabi. It will be like that also in Iraq". There is no doubt that the trip represents a gesture of closeness to the entire Iraqi population.

The Pope already expressed his intention to visit Iraq on June 10, 2019, during an audience with participants in the meeting of Aid Works for the Eastern Churches. "An insistent thought accompanies me thinking about Iraq.", he said, "so that it can look forward through the peaceful and shared participation in the construction of the common good of all the components, also religious, of the society and fall back on tensions that come from the never appeased conflicts of the regional powers.".

This visit, which could not take place in 2020, seemed to become more concrete when, on January 25 last year, Pope Francis received President Barham Salih at the Vatican, who also met with Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin and Monsignor Paul Richard Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States of the Holy See. During the meeting, they discussed, among other issues, challenges such as "to promote stability and the reconstruction process, encouraging the path of dialogue and the search for appropriate solutions in favor of the citizens and with respect for national sovereignty"The Vatican Press Office said in a press release.

In Mosul, Ur of the Chaldeans...

Bishop Basil Yaldo, auxiliary bishop of Baghdad and general coordinator for the visit in Iraq, told Asia News that ".the Pope's visit is the confirmation that the country enjoys greater stability, thanks also to the work done by the current Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and President Barham Salih, which has been instrumental in improving many critical situations of the past.". In his words he emphasized, in a particular way, the great attention shown by the Head of State for Pope Francis, confirmed by the "two official visits" made in little more than a year. "The Pope's visit was a dream for us and the role of coordinator is a great responsibility for me", continues Msgr. Yaldo.

This news item, "It conveys courage to all the Iraqi people, not only to Christians, and is a sign of deep solidarity, peace and fraternity for the whole nation.". As for Muslims, he stresses that, "If that were possible, they are happier than we are... The whole country is happy. The Muslim leaders have been asking me for a long time when the Pope would come, and the time has finally come. We are a small flock, but of great value.".

With regard to the program of the visit, still incomplete at the time of writing, the prelate emphasizes "the desire to go to Mosul, long the stronghold of the Islamic State and the place where the worst barbarities of the jihadist madness were consummated.". "Pope wants to go to Mosul and pray for the victims of ISIS, and for all the violence that has occurred there". But "the heart" of the journey, adds Msgr. Yaldo, "will be the visit to Ur of the Chaldeans, because for us, Christians, Muslims and Jews, Abraham is the prophet of all religions. He represents the sign of unity for all of us who inhabit this land, for those of us who live in Iraq. Seeing Abraham's house will be a very strong symbol of unity for all the religions that share it.".

The preliminary program also includes a visit to Qaraqosh. In September 2019, this magazine reported that the images of the city after the passage of Daesh were "horrifying. Houses bombed, destroyed, burned. Christian temples razed to the ground. Their inhabitants fled as best they could, leaving everything behind. Especially to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and to the surrounding cities.".

Qaraqosh was the largest city in the area known as the Nineveh Plain. With a Christian majority, it was home to 50,000 inhabitants, and was literally destroyed. A year and a half ago, homes, schools and temples were slowly beginning to be rebuilt, thanks in large part to the coordinated action of the main local Christian churches, with the collaboration of the Help Them Return campaign launched by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). Now, many families want to return, they want to stop being refugees and regain their lives, their jobs, their homes, their dignity. But confidence must be restored.

Trust, fraternity

The Pope's visit will be "an injection of encouragement"Cardinal Fernando Filoni, current Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre and former Prefect of the Dicastery for the Evangelization of Peoples, now presided over by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, wrote in L'Osservatore Romano. In his article, Cardinal Filoni defines Iraq as a "hinge" land between the Middle East and Central-West Asia; and assures that "Iraq is a "hinge land" between the Middle East and Central-West Asia.Pope Francis will bring with him a novelty. The possibility of a coexistence based on that fraternity that he wanted to sign in Abu Dhabi on February 4, 2019. It is not a sequel that this will happen after this event and that it will bring those principles of coexistence that the land of Abraham, the Iraq of today, absolutely needs.".

Indeed, during his visit to the United Arab Emirates, the Pope signed with the Imam of the University of Al-Azhar the "Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Coexistence". Two months later, he was in Morocco and signed an appeal with the Alawite King on Jerusalem. Will a new document be released in Mesopotamia, some observers wonder, while others point directly to the encyclical Fratelli tutti, dated October 3 last year in Assisi, the eve of the feast of the Poverello.

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