The pilgrim of peace: Pope Francis visits Iraq

Ilia Mehr Bakhsh ’23

“Peace does not demand winners or losers, but rather brothers and sisters who, for all the misunderstandings and hurts of the past, are journeying from conflict to unity.” These are the words of Pope Francis on the occasion of his historic visit to Iraq.

On March 4, Pope Francis left the Vatican for a four-day visit to Iraq in which he was described as “a pilgrim of peace.” This visit was the pontiff’s first international visit since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago, and the first ever papal visit to Iraq. Iraq holds some of the oldest Christian communities, which have unfortunately seen troubles over the past twenty years due to terrorist attacks that killed and misplaced Iraqi Christians.

Pope Francis believed he was “duty bound” to make this historic visit to Iraq, despite both the COVID-19 and security fears that made this visit his riskiest yet. Pope Francis believes that Iraq’s Christian community should have a more prominent role as citizens with full rights, freedoms, and responsibilities.

On his second day in Iraq, Pope Francis traveled to the city of Najaf to make a visit to the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the most revered Shia Muslim cleric, to have a conversation about peace between faiths, in which they found much common ground. Despite the fact that Ayatollah Al-Sistani rarely makes his opinions known, he expressed that Christians should be able to live in peace with other Iraqis.

This forty-minute-long conversation was necessary to address the great deal of persecution towards Christians in the East and discrimination against Muslims in the West. The Pope’s visit reminded all Catholics and Muslims to take note and understand the great roots at the foundation of the two Abrahamic faiths. This conversation will go down in history as it represents a step towards reform and a more peaceful, respectful world for all.

‘Beautiful’ would be an understatement to describe the Mass held in Irbil which hundreds of Iraqi residents attended. Muslims and Christians joined together to celebrate their worship of God.

The terrorist group known as ISIS had previously threatened to kill the Pope in Mosul, the very city in which the Pope decided to visit on his third day. In Mosul, the Pope paid respect to the ruins of churches and the Christian martyrs who were persecuted by an Iraqi terrorist group.

Standing in historic Mesopotamia, the land known as the birthplace of civilization, Pope Francis said, “How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people: Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, and others forcibly displaced or killed.”

The Pope made his mark by paying respect to the dwindling Iraqi Christian communities, and with the assistance of Ayatollah Al-Sistani, the Pope initiated the first step towards peace between the Shia Muslim and Catholic faiths. These four days would forever change the world’s viewpoint towards faith and what religion truly stands for: love and peace.

Photo Credit: REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

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