March 8, 2021
The four-day long trip was an of courage. Yet, in a video message he sent to the people of Iraq before the visit, the Pope displayed modesty and said, “I come as a pilgrim, as a penitent pilgrim to implore forgiveness and reconciliation from the Lord after years of war and terrorism”. With the visit, recent rocket attacks on US and coalition military sites in Iraq and the retaliatory US airstrike against buildings used by Iran-backed militias in eastern Syria temporarily moved to the background.
In view of security worries and concerns over the spread of coronavirus the visit was also an act of daring for Baghdad.
At the welcoming ceremony in Baghdad, President Barham Saleh, a statesman Iraqis are lucky to have, delivered a remarkable speech on what his country has been through and the challenges which lie ahead. In underlining the significance of the visit, he said, “Thank you for accepting our invitation and blessing us with your visit, the historical, religious and human significance of which we cannot but appreciate. It is a sign of the interest that you take in Iraq.”[i]
The Pope also dwelled on Iraq’s past and future. He said, “Over the past several decades, Iraq has suffered the disastrous effects of wars, the scourge of terrorism and sectarian conflicts often grounded in a fundamentalism incapable of accepting the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups, different ideas and cultures… It is necessary, but not sufficient, to combat the scourge of corruption, misuse of power and disregard for law. Also necessary is the promotion of justice and the fostering of honesty, transparency and the strengthening of the institutions responsible in this regard.”[ii]
Pope’s meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Sistani was the highlight of the visit.
The Washington Post reported that one of Sistani’s local representatives in the city of Nasiriya, Sheikh Haider al-Dubaisi, described the sight of Francis walking through Najaf’s alleyways as a dream come true. “Those steps were historic, they reflected so much,” he said. “He came even though he could barely walk. He sent a message not only to Iraqis, but to the whole world that Islam and other religions can sit together peacefully.”
A statement released by the Ayatollah’s office said,
“This morning, His Eminence Sayyid Al-Sistani met with the Supreme Pontiff (Pope Francis), Pope of the Catholic Church and Head of State of the Vatican.
“His Eminence talked about the injustice, oppression, poverty, religious and intellectual persecution, suppression of basic freedoms and the absence of social justice, especially the wars, acts of violence, economic blockade, displacement and so on, especially the Palestinian people in the occupied territories…
“He affirmed his interest in Christian citizens living like all Iraqis in peace and security while preserving all their constitutional rights…
“His Eminence wished the Supreme Pontiff, the followers of the Catholic Church, and the general public of humanity good and happiness, and thanked him for making the effort to travel to Najaf to make this visit.”[iii]
Last Friday, in her New York Times article Jane Arraf said, “The steady exodus of Christians that began after the U.S. invasion in 2003 has only accelerated since ISIS was driven out of Iraq in 2017. The pope’s visit is a show of solidarity with the country’s remaining Christians, whose numbers have shrunk to less than one-third of the 1.5 million who lived here in Saddam Hussein’s time.”
The Guardian reported that there were an estimated 1.4 million Christians in Iraq before the US-led invasion in 2003, but now the number is believed to be about 250,000.
Another article by Jason Horowitz and Jane Arraf in the New York Times said:
“After decades of dictatorship and more than a decade of sanctions, the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein sparked a security vacuum and the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The country descended into civil war. A decade later, the Islamic State took over a third of the country. Iraq is still struggling to recover.”
And an article by Chico Harlan and Louisa Loveluck of the Washington Post said the Pope’s trip “amounts to a show of encouragement for a nation trying to recover from the chaos of a U.S.-led invasion and the brutality of the Islamic State”.
The foregoing confirms yet again that external military interventions in the Middle East have proved failures, i.e., if as proclaimed at outset, the intention was indeed to bring democracy. Democracy cannot be air-dropped. It requires genuine engagement and leading by example. It needs to avoid devastation and human suffering.
Hopefully, in recalibrating its Middle East policy the Biden administration would either remember President Obama’s admission that failing to prepare for the aftermath of the ousting of Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi was the worst mistake of his presidency, or preferably, close the door to new military interventions.
This morning Pope Francis safely departed Iraq and the world breathed a sigh of relief. His visit was a great success for him and Iraq.