With much of the world still grounded by the Covid-19 pandemic and mired in political, ethnic and racial division, Pope Francis is determined to take another road.
Next week, he begins a four-day pilgrimage to Iraq to bring a message of peace and fraternity to a mostly Muslim country where the challenges are even greater.
Decades of political and religious tensions, economic difficulties and ongoing low-level terrorist attacks have shattered the security and social fabric of that Middle East country, leaving a severely demoralized population who now also struggle against Covid.
To Francis, however, hope is the watchword and his visit is a powerful symbol that the Catholic Church is a facilitator of “peace, reconciliation and development” in solidarity with other faith communities in the region.
It’s telling that he is making the March 5-8 trip during Lent, the period leading up to the defining Christian moment: the Resurrection of Jesus at Easter.
That’s certainly a strong symbol of his commitment to the unity of humankind under God and a demonstration of the trip’s theme of “You are all brothers.”
The trip, the first by a pope to a majority Shiite Muslim country, also honors in a concrete way the Christians and other religious minorities persecuted for their faith over the years by Islamic State militants (ISIS) and other extremist groups.
Indeed, meetings with Iraq’s Christian communities—80 percent of which are Eastern (Orthodox) Catholics—are at the heart of the pope’s visit.
His schedule includes meetings with government leaders and leaders of other faiths, including a private meeting with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of Shiite Islam’s most authoritative figures.
The pope will also visit churches that were destroyed by ISIS militants and, as a global religious leader, he will hold an interreligious meeting near the ancient city of Ur, birthplace of Abraham, who is recognized as the patriarch of monotheistic faith by Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Shahrzad Houshmand Zadeh, a Shiite Muslim theologian who has taught at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, said the Ur meeting underscores Francis’s commitment to the unity of all human beings, an embrace he is now “broadening to include the Islamic world.”
The pope’s visit does raise some concerns, about Covid, certainly, and also about safety and security.
In what may have been a message to the new Biden administration, militants launched rockets into Irbil in the usually safe haven of the semiautonomous Kurdish region, in a troubling reminder that the Middle East can still be a dangerous place. Francis’ itinerary does include a stop in the Kurdish region, where he will visit a restored church in Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city.
We pray that his visit there, and his trip as a whole, will bring the results that so many of us seek.
“Across the board, all people of good will await this message of hope, of fraternity from the pope, and they long for a change in Iraq,” said Jesuit Father Joseph Cassar, the Irbil-based country director for Jesuit Refugee Services.
That’s the message and the goal.