Pope Francis begins a visit of faith, hope to Iraq today

Published March 5, 2021, 12:15 AM

by Manila Bulletin

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.