Pope Francis begins today the first-ever papal visit to Iraq. It is described as an act of solidarity with an ancient Christian community in Iraq and an outreach to Muslims who dominate the nations of the Middle East.
The Pope will voice solidarity with this ancient Christian minority, now down to 400,000 from 1.5 million in 2003, in a nation of 25 million. Chaldeans and other Catholics make up half of Iraq’s Christians; the rest are Armenian Orthodox, Protestants, and other small churches.
In anticipation of the Pope’s visit, welcome banners featuring his image and with his Arabic title “Baba al-Vatican” have been hung in the streets of Baghdad. Churches and roads are being paved in remote areas that have never seen a visitor like Pope Francis.
The papal visit to Iraq focuses attention on this part of the world commonly revered by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as the original home of Abraham. It was in the land of Ur, in southern Iraq, where Abraham was living, when, it is narrated in the book of Genesis in the Bible, God told him to leave the house of his father and settle in the far western land of Canaan.
Abraham’s son Isaac became the father of Jacob, whose 12 sons fathered the 12 tribes of Israel. From one of these sons, Joseph, came the generation of Jesus. Abraham’s other son Ishmael became the ancestor of Muhammad. Abraham is thus revered as the common patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
It is to the original homeland of Abraham that Pope Francis will be going today. The ancient history of the land will be on his mind as he goes about his visit, but it is today’s problems that will dominate his concerns.
Iraq today is a war-torn country with various forces fighting one another for control of various parts. It was ruled by Saddam Hussein from 1979 to 2003 but he was overthrown following the US invasion of Iraq and executed for crimes against humanity. In 2013, Daesh forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took over large swaths of territory but it has since been eradicated from the areas it used to control. All over the country today, government security forces have faced fighters of all kinds — Daesh forces, Sunni militias, tribal groups, Shia military groups, terrorist groups.
It is into this land of conflicting forces that Pope Francis ventures today with a message of peace and solidarity that so many armed groups may ignore in this divided land. “He will have powerful words for Iraq, where crimes against humanity have been committed,” Chaldean Catholic Bishop Najeeb Michaeel of the northern city of Mosul said.
But, as ever, the Pope has faith in his mission. We join in that hope and look forward to the success of that mission.