03/01/2022, 21.02
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Pope in Iraq, an unforgettable visit among prophets of unity in diversity

by Dario Salvi

Yesterday the pontiff received representatives of Iraq’s different Christian Churches one year after his apostolic journey to the land of Abraham. For Patriarch Sako, the memory of the event is still alive among Christians and Muslims. Al-Sistani’s recognition that Christians belong to the same homeland still resonates. Once an Islamic state stronghold, Mosul is now a symbol of religious and cultural rebirth.

Baghdad (AsiaNews) – One year after his unforgettable visit, Pope Francis yesterday received representatives of the Churches in Iraq. He did so with “emotion and joy”, noting “that it is not possible to imagine Iraq without Christians.”

The pontiff explained that he was saying this “not only on religious foundations, but also on social and cultural evidence.” Christians have “contribute[d] strongly to the country’s specific identity as a place where co-existence, tolerance and mutual acceptance have flourished ever since the first centuries.”

After seeing this with his own eyes, the pope noted that Iraq has a “vocation of demonstrating, in the Middle East and throughout the world, peaceful coexistence in diversity,” echoing what John Paul II said about Lebanon.

Since apostolic times, the pontiff explained, Christians “have lived side by side with other religions,” and today possess “another indispensable vocation: to make efforts to ensure that religions may be at the service of fraternity” in “lands of beginnings” as well “exiles”.

Persecutions and wars have forced many to emigrate “bringing to the West the light of the Christian East.” Yet, despite "truly tragic moments", in his meetings with Iraqi Christian leaders, Francis saw “courageous witnesses of fidelity to the Gospel”.

Because of this “I bow before the suffering and martyrdom of those who have preserved the faith, even at the cost of their lives.” Thus, may the blood of martyrs “be a seed of unity among Christians” and a “prophetic sign of unity in diversity.”

From the pope new dignity to Christians

Pope Francis’ apostolic journey (5- 8 March 2021) is still alive in people’s memories because the pontiff “impressed Iraqis for his gestures and speeches marked by fraternity,” said Card Louis Raphael Sako, speaking to AsiaNews.

For the Chaldean patriarch who chairs the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Iraq, the legacy of this unique experience remains, as evinced by “the stamps issued by the government” recently to mark the event.

A book has also been written “with the leaders of other religious groups: Muslims, Sabaeans, Mandaeans, Yazidis and Christians,” in which everyone “spoke of their faith” from a perspective of dialogue and integration, a tome that will be presented in the coming days. 

The pope in Iraq “has made us today see ourselves as brothers” based on “unity in diversity and richness of human nature.” All of us “have the same faith” and a common lineage, which is “manifested in different ways. But we all believe in God and look to Abraham as our common father.”

Even today, papal speeches and statements during his Iraq visit “are broadcast on television”, sign of their timeliness. "Christians have finally held their heads high amid a broad climate of acceptance among the Muslim population.”

The Iraqi Church is planning some events this week. They include a solemn ecumenical Mass in the same cathedral where the pontiff led a service; three days of meetings, discussion and exchanges on the visit; a film that traces the main sites Francis visited in Iraq; and a recital prepared by a group of young people from Baghdad.

A satisfied patriarch is happy that “both Christians and Muslims will take part in the events.” And on the last day, there will be “a pilgrimage to Ur of the Chaldeans, a journey of peace and a journey to listen to the word of God through Abraham.”

At a time of conflict, the latest being Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “we must strongly renew the call for peace, stability, and respect for a dignified life for all. The government has also joined the plan and will be present in various ways.”  

Speaking about interfaith dialogue, Patriarch Sako remembers the strong impulse received from the meeting between the pope and Shia religious leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose words “have the value of a fatwa” and the “declaration” in which he recognised Christians as part of the nation and its people “has a legal value for Muslims,” reinforcing the pope's call for brotherhood.

Meanwhile, Iraq is moving towards political change, following last October’s parliamentary election. “In parliament we have 200 new MPs out of 329, a first,” the cardinal explained. “Forming a new government will take time, and all parties must work with the common good, not personal gain in mind. We must get beyond selfishness to look to the future in a new way.” 

Mosul, out of the ashes of the Islamic State rebirth

One of the symbols of this rebirth is Mosul, northern Iraq’s largest city. Once a stronghold of the Islamic State, today it is a cultural lab where people experience reconciliation and living together in spite of difficulties.

This month, work will get underway to rebuild major religious sites, both Christian and Muslim, thanks to funding from UNESCO and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). These include the minaret of Al-Hadba, the Church of al-Saa'a (Our Lady of the Hour) held by Dominican Fathers, and the Syro-Catholic church of al-Tahera (of the Immaculate). 

Recent archaeological digs at the al-Nouri Mosque led to the discovery of a 12th century building dedicated to prayer that existed before the Islamic place of worship was built. Some scholars suggest that the mosque might have been built on top of what was once a church.

Mosul’s rebirth is as much religious as it is cultural, as shown by the work underway to restore the university's library to its former glory. It once held a million books but was largely gutted by the Islamic State. 

Thousands of books on philosophy and law, science and poetry, that did not fit with their extremist worldview went up in flames, while other titles among the most precious and sought after were sold on the black market.

Today, five years after the Islamic State’s military defeat, experts, scholars and enthusiasts are trying to revive the city’s past literary glory.

“Mosul, like all of Iraq, must look at the pope's message,” said Card Sako. “We are brothers, but different, and we must know how to accept and value these differences that must enrich, not divide.”

For the Christian community, a key step will be the permanent return of the bishop and a priest, to take care of the families who have returned to the city and are contributing to the reconstruction projects already underway. 

For the patriarch, “hardships and sacrifices aside, this small flock of Christians, as the pope called them, is still present and the Church is strong and alive. From here, we must look to the future with confidence and hope, boosting our sense of belonging to Iraq.”

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