Pope Francis in Iraq: A Pilgrimage of Reconciliation

Status: 07.03.2021 8:33 a.m.

For the first time a Pope has traveled to Iraq, despite Corona, despite criticism in advance. Francis did not want to disappoint the Iraqis again after John Paul II had to cancel a trip planned in 2000.

By Elisabeth Pongratz, ARD Studio Rome,
currently Baghdad

Festive mood in the plain of Ur: When Pope Francis arrives, a violent wind blows up and swirls the desert sand around. It was from here that Abraham set out, the progenitor to whom Jews, Christians and Muslims refer. “We brothers and sisters of different religions have met here – at home – and from here we want to work together for the realization of God’s dream: that the human family should be hospitable and receptive to all of their children” – the pontiff again appeals brotherhood across all differences.

Elisabeth Pongratz

Elisabeth Pongratz
ARD-Studio Rom

At the same time, he warns that hostility, extremism and violence are betrayals of religion. When meeting with religious leaders of Muslims, Yazidis and Mandaeans, he reminds that believers cannot remain silent when terrorism abuses religion. The people in the two-river country in particular have experienced war, terror and pain for decades.

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During his first visit to Iraq, Francis chose the words of reconciliation and at the same time warned that one could only walk the path of peace together. Shortly after arriving in Baghdad, he told President Barham Salih and representatives from politics and society that he was coming in the name of Christ. Even later, the 84-year-old Pope repeatedly mentions the motto by which he understands his visit: “I come as a penitent and ask heaven and my brothers and sisters for forgiveness for so much destruction and cruelty. I come as a pilgrim of peace, in the name of Christ the Prince of Peace. ”

Proximity despite Corona – as far as possible

He is received enthusiastically by the people, even if there is a three-day curfew. The number of infections with the coronavirus has risen sharply for weeks, and there is also a tense security situation. But the precautions are enormous, additional checkpoints have been set up on the streets, and armed guards are everywhere. This wants to show: We are happy about the Pope’s visit, we do everything to make him feel comfortable. Francis approaches people where he can, such as when he visits the Syrian Catholic cathedral, Sayidat al-Nejat.

Francis loves it when he can get close to people. But on his first trip abroad since the corona pandemic, the usual distance rules apply, and there was also criticism in advance that large gatherings could be super spreaders. The final mass in the Erbil stadium was initially planned for 30,000 believers, now 10,000 are allowed.

The Shiites

Along with the dominant Sunnis, Shiites are one of the two main directions of Islam. Around 80 to 90 percent of Muslims worldwide are Sunnis, with Shiites making up the majority in only a few countries. These include Iran, Iraq and Bahrain. In Iraq, the country of origin of the Shia, followers of this creed make up two thirds of the population.

The highest teaching authority in Iraq and beyond is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, based in Najaf. The shrines of the imams in the Iraqi towns of Karbala, Nadschaf, Samarra and al-Kazimiyya, a suburb of Baghdad, are considered holy places for the Shiites. With Mashhad and Qom, Iran also has important pilgrimage sites.

Meeting with the Grand Ayatollah as the highlight

During his stay, Pope Francis built important bridges, including with the Shiites. In the morning he met in Najaf privately with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Cardinal Miguel Ayuso Guixot accompanied him. “We have again understood and seen how important it is to work together. In a spirit of brotherhood, to make the world a better place,” said Francis. Al-Sistani is the highest authority of the Iraqi Shiites, and his word carries weight everywhere. The encounter with him was considered a high point.

At a private meeting, Francis exchanged ideas with the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani.

Image: dpa

Another bridge

Francis concluded the day in an extraordinary way: for the first time, a Pope celebrated a mass according to the Chaldean rite – again building a bridge. Pope Francis used his first trip to Iraq to promote peace, to overcome borders and, above all, to pay more attention to the country.

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