What you need to know:
- Mr Augustine Bahemuka says: Christians were perceived as an existential threat to Iraq and hence persecuted through attacks...
Pope Francis just completed his four-day apostolic journey to the Republic of Iraq. This marked moments of great significance in the religious history of our modern era on a number of fronts, but most important was the fulfillment of the papal desire to visit this country.
Pope Francis’ insistence to visit Iraq is also to be viewed through the lenses of papal continuity. Twenty-two years ago, Pope John Paul II expressed his desire to visit the biblical city of Ur to mark the beginning of the Great Jubilee in 2000, but the trip was declined by President Saddam Hussein.
Pope Benedict XVI also expressed utmost concern about the religious persecution of Christians in Iraq by ISIS. He also held a Synod of Bishops for the Middle East in October 2010 to discuss the situation. It is in this papal spirit that Pope Francis insisted on the trip in spite of the health, and security risks it bore.
From a perspective of peacebuilding, this article articulates two significant aspects of the Pope’s visit, namely pilgrimage for peace and interreligious dialogue.
Pilgrimage for peace and reconciliation
Pope Francis portrayed himself “as a penitent pilgrim to implore forgiveness and reconciliation from the Lord after years of war and terrorism, to ask God for the consolation of hearts and the healing of wounds”. Iraq is marked by decades of war, violence, persecution, political instability, among other challenges, which have left a deeply wounded and fractured social fabric.
Evidence of the victims of this violence and devastation is demonstrated by the loss of lives, mass displacement of people estimated at 3.3 million since 2014, and destruction of infrastructure.
Christian persecution in various forms remains a huge threat to Iraqi Christians whose population has shrunk to about 300,000 from 1.4 million in the early 2000s. However, the Muslim community in Iraq has also been victim of religious persecutions especially in the wake of the decade’s long Shia-Sunni Muslim conflict.
Cardinal Leonardi Sandri, the Prefect of the Congregation of Oriental Churches at the Vatican, notes that the pope’s visit to Iraq was, therefore, not only of great consolation and encouragement to the Christian minority communities but also the Muslim majority who have suffered from protracted war, terrorism and persecution.
He also notes that the pope’s visit was of great significance to restoring the nation’s global image from a country in a “state of death” to one that is capable of rebuilding itself.
Unity in religious diversity
Iraq is characterised by pluralism of religious belief and faith communities. Muslims constitute 97 per cent of the entire population, of whom the Shiites comprise 55 to 60 per cent while the Sunnis mark 40 per cent. The other minority religious groups include Christians (Chaldeans, Syro-Orthodox, Syro- Catholics, Armenian Catholics, Anglicans and other Protestants), Yezidis and Jews.
The pre-2003 US invasion regime of Iraq was considerably tolerant of Christians. However, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein affected the religious freedom enjoyed by religious minorities, especially with the rise of ISIS. Christians were perceived as an existential threat to Iraq and hence persecuted through attacks on churches and worshipers and forced conversions, among others. Many Iraqi Christians were forced to flee while those who remained live under constant threat.
Pope Francis made frequent appeals for unity, mutual respect and peaceful co-existence among the Iraq divide. He condemned the instrumentalisation of religious belief and faith as a tool of violence. He is a firm advocate of the interfaith dialogue and has in fact met Muslim Sunni leaders from Bangladesh, Morocco, Turkey and the UAE.
Francis is convinced that the personal encounter with other religious leaders can influence believers of the respective faith groups to perceive the other as brother or sister because of their shared humanity. This was evident by his courtesy visit to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leader of the Muslim Shias.
The two personalities share some common views in their line of thought, for instance, religious freedoms, co-existence, mutual acceptance of all peoples and social cohesion.
The Pope also held interfaith prayers at the biblical city of Ur. He rightly founded his appeal for interfaith dialogue on the common ancestry of Christianity, Islam and Judaism in the patriarch Abraham, whose birth place is believed to be Ur.
MrAugustine Bahemuka is a peace practitioner based in Nairobi, Kenya.