Pope Francis’s historic trip to Iraq, including visits to the war-torn north, has been deeply significant. It is one that needs to be seen in the context of peace rather than politics.
The pope, as a de facto religious “father” recognised around the world, offers consolation for all people, not just Christians. His visit brought the triple significance of hope, courage and peace to those in need.
It comes at a time when the world continues to face the dual threat of terrorism and the Covid-19 pandemic. Entering Iraq — where Covid-19 is still rampant and there was the risk of attack by Islamic State — was powerfully symbolic.
Iraq is home to an ancient Christian community that is still thriving today. The country’s Christian population, however, has been in steady decline since the 2003 US-led military intervention. It is no coincidence that Pope Francis chose Iraq to deliver this message of peace. As he said:
This blessed place brings us back to our origins, to the sources of God’s work, to the birth of our religions.
Iraq is the ancestral home of the monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, because the so-called “father of faith”, Abraham, was from the ancient city of Ur (southern Iraq). And it is from Ur that Abraham is traditionally believed to have set out in faith for peace.
Pope Francis is the first pontiff to visit Iraq. But the trip was also significant because he is foregrounding the historical by going back to a place resonant with the promise of peace between different faiths. In his speech at Ur he said:
Today we, Jews, Christians and Muslims, together with our brothers and sisters of other religions, honour our father Abraham by doing as he did: we look up to heaven and we journey on earth.
The pope is not a political figure. He is the symbolic representation of the highest religious value. His visit is a reminder of the place of faith at the core of human life, regardless of whether a person is religious or not. The value of the pope’s visit is in what it represents.
This momentous occasion is about the long-term impact for positive change that religion can and should bring to the world stage. The pontiff’s address was a direct appeal to the global community, for the problems that some are now facing are ultimately shared.
Pope Francis’s visit and his message reminded me of the labour of love by Father Jacques Mourad, a priest and monk of the Syriac Catholic Church. Together with the Italian Jesuit, Father Paolo Dall’golio, they re-established the community of Mar Musa monastery in Qaryatayn, Syria, in 1991.
Theirs represented a unique group of Christians that, in their own words, had “fallen in love with Islam”, initiating and for years remaining dedicated to Christian-Muslim dialogue. In 2015 Islamic State took Father Jacques hostage. He survived the encounter, and nonetheless brought back a message of hope:
Ultimately, they are normal people like us. But their insane idea is a reaction against the injustice and evil we experience in this world.
The pope’s visit was both a reminder and recognition of the neglected and desperate need for restoration of the human spirit afflicted by politicised religious violence.