03/04/2021, 17.13
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Pope in Iraq on a journey of peace, reconciliation and brotherhood (VIDEO)

by Franco Pisano

Francis leaves for Baghdad tomorrow to meet a “martyred Church” and visit places devastated by the Islamic State. The trip includes a visit to Ur of the Chaldeans and a meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, leader of the Shia community, which is the majority religion in Iraq and in neighbouring Iran. Before his departure, Francis released a video message.

 

Vatican City (AsiaNews) –  Pope Francis issued a video message on the eve of his visit to Iraq (5-8 March). In it, he focuses on peace, reconciliation and brotherhood, imploring “from the Lord forgiveness and reconciliation after years of war and terrorism,” begging “from God the consolation of hearts and the healing of wounds.”

The trip’s motto is “You are all brothers and sisters” from the Gospel of Matthew (23:8). As banner and placards already show in Iraq, Francis wants to be a “pilgrim of peace” to meet you “who have greatly suffered, yet were never overwhelmed.”

The papal message is addressed to “Christians and Muslims” and “Yazidi, who have suffered so greatly”, calling them “brothers and sisters all. Now I am coming to your land, [. . .] as a pilgrim of hope. In your midst, from Nineveh, there resounded the prophecy of Jonah, who halted destruction and brought new hope, God’s hope. May we be infected by this hope, which inspires us to rebuild and begin anew. In these trying times of pandemic, let us help one another to strengthen fraternity and build together a future of peace. Together, brothers and sisters of every religious tradition.”

Like every papal visit, this one is meant primarily for Christians, for the Iraqi Church which Francis called a “martyred Church” at his last general audience, an expression he repeated in the video message, when he said that Iraqi Christians “have testified to your faith in Christ amid harsh sufferings”.

On Friday, after the courtesy meeting with Iraq’s head of state and political and civic dignitaries, the Holy Father will meet bishops, priests, religious and lay people. For all of them, he will surely have words of encouragement.

In his video-message, the pontiff mentioned the devastation inflicted by the Islamic State, the memory of which will take centre stage on Sunday when Francis travels to Mosul and Qaraqosh.

About 120,000 Christians fled Mosul, the capital of the Governorate of Nineveh, following the takeover by the Islamic State group, whose occupation lasted from 2014 to 2017. Qaraqosh, which was and is Iraq’s main Christian city, took the brunt of the Islamic State’s fury.

The Pope will meet the faithful in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, which was vandalised and torched, the statues beheaded, the bell tower partially demolished. In his video message he mentions “the picture of homes destroyed and churches profaned, and in your hearts, you still bear the hurt of affections left behind and dwellings abandoned.”

“I want to bring you the affectionate caress of the whole Church, which is close to you and to the war-torn Middle East, and encourages you to keep moving forward. Let us not allow the terrible sufferings you have experienced, sufferings that grieve me deeply, to gain the upper hand.

The visit is not just for Christians. It is a journey “seeking fraternity and prompted by the desire to pray together and to walk together, also with our brothers and sisters of other religious traditions, in the steps of Father Abraham, who joins in one family Muslims, Jews and Christians.”

This unity will be symbolically evoked by the stop on Saturday at Ur of the Chaldeans. Here, according to tradition, Abraham spoke with God for the first time, and from here he departed, in obedience to God, leaving his homeland and possessions to go into an unknown land.

“From here, thousands of years ago, Abraham began his journey. Today it is up to us to carry on that journey, in the same spirit, pursuing together the paths of peace!” to this end, “I ask all of you to do as Abraham did: to walk in hope and never stop looking to the stars above.”

Ur of the Chaldeans, which today is called Tell al-Muqayyar, was supposed to be the first stop of a journey John Paul II wanted to make during the Jubilee of 2000. It was not to be.

Next Saturday will also be a particularly important day because the Pontiff will meet with 91-year-old Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Husayni Al-Sistani, the leader of Iraq's majority Shia community.

The tête-à-tête is part of the Pope’s rapprochement with the Islamic world. But so far, all the moves, including the 2019 visit to the United Arab Emirates where Francis met Grand Imam Ahmad al-Tayeb of al-Azhar, were towards Sunni Islam. Other meetings and joint statements of brotherhood were also made with the highest Sunni religious authority who heads the majority group in the Islamic world, except in Iraq and, and above all, in Iran.

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