March 9, 2021

Pope Francis Visits Iraq

Pope Francis urged Iraq’s Christians on Sunday to forgive the injustices against them by Muslim extremists and to rebuild as he visited the wrecked shells of churches and met ecstatic crowds in the community’s historic heartland… Throughout his four-day visit, Francis has delivered a message of interreligious tolerance to Muslim leaders, including in a historic meeting Saturday with Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.” AP News

Both sides applaud the Pope’s message of religious tolerance and hope that his visit will ameliorate violence and persecution in the region:

“The pope's current trip to Iraq is the first trip he's made since COVID-19 arrived, and the importance of the visit is not lost on the Christians in that troubled region. As far as they are concerned, all the interfaith dialogue aspects of the trip are secondary, important though they might be for the peace of the world and for their lives. The chief message of the pope's trip is that Christians in the Middle East are not forgotten -- something that doesn't always seem true, especially in the United States. I frequently find that Americans don't even realize that there are Christians in Iraq anymore.”
Kathryn Lopez, Townhall

“Iraq’s [Assyrian] Christians are descendants and carriers of a deeply rooted Christian legacy. Yet, they have been severely persecuted by both regional governments and several Islamist terror groups. The modern Iraqi state was founded in 1932. In August 1933, the Iraqi Army systematically targeted the indigenous Assyrian population in northern Iraq—in a campaign known as the Simele Massacre—murdering the inhabitants of over one hundred Assyrian villages across Dohuk and Mosul. At least 6,000 innocent Assyrians were massacred, and tens of thousands had to leave their homeland…

“The Assyrians were exposed to yet another genocide in 2014—this time in Iraq and at the hands of the Islamic State, or ISIS. Assyrian rights advocates are thus concerned the Assyrian and other Christian populations in Iraq might go extinct if precautions are not taken by the Iraqi government and international observers. The population decline of Christians in Iraq is alarming: Before the 2003 US invasion, around 1.4 million Christians lived in the country. Today, fewer than 175,000 remain—an 80 percent drop in less than two decades.”
Juliana Taimoorazy and Uzay Bulut, American Conservative

“Oppressive governments and violent extremist movements have been busy erasing the Middle East’s diverse religious communities. Today, Syria and Yemen have lost almost all of their Jews, while Turkey has done the same with its Chaldean Christians, ethnic Syriacs who follow the Catholic rite. Iraq’s Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking community that adheres to a long-persecuted ancient monotheistic faith narrowly escaped destruction during the Islamic State’s genocidal campaign. Iraq’s Mandaeans, followers of another indigenous Middle Eastern faith, also fear extinction…

“The U.S. government should take a stand to defend diversity and pluralism in the Middle East and beyond, in concert with its transatlantic allies and other partners. Security assurances to protect embattled communities from future genocidal campaigns, substantial development aid for rebuilding them and support for inclusive institutions can all play a role.”
Sharon Nazarian and Aykan Erdemir, Washington Post

“The precarious position of ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq is a reminder that the real test for Middle Eastern countries goes beyond holding democratic elections and includes whether their minorities are secure. This is why the pope’s meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani, the world’s leading cleric of the so-called quietest school of Shiite Islam and a moderating force in Iraq, may be the most significant meeting on his agenda…

“The ayatollah knows that Shiites are a minority in most other Muslim nations across the region. Shiites also know what it’s like to be persecuted. Tolerance for ethnic and religious minorities will not come to the Middle East tomorrow. But having Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani uniting around the idea would be a powerful message to the world.”
Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal

“Although the meeting is a brief one, I believe its impact will be felt across the Middle East. The Shia Islamic world is divided between a mainstream, Iraq-based school of Islam that believes there should be a separation of church and state and a revolutionary, Iran-based school that believes in theocracy. The meeting with the pope represents international and interreligious recognition of the mainstream Iraq-based Shia school

“This recognition provides an important morale boost for the people and organizations in Iraq and the greater Muslim world who have been working on interfaith dialogue for years but who are often dismayed that international awareness of Shia Islam so often revolves around the violent militant groups. This will hopefully lead to a strengthening of their efforts…

“Iranian state media have been conspicuously quiet about the papal visit. But the significance hasn't gone unnoticed. Mehdi Nasiri, a journalist and former representative of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, raised eyebrows when he tweeted an acknowledgment that the meeting between [the two] indicates that the ‘traditional’ school in Iraq has overtaken the ‘modern’ school in Iran in understanding global priorities and religious diplomacy.”
Hayder al-Khoei, NBC News Think

“Sistani welcomed Francis publicly into his home — itself an unusual event for the 90-year-old cleric — and proclaimed that Iraqis had a duty to protect and welcome Christians as equals in their own homeland… This could not have gone better for Francis. It might not have gone much better for Sistani either, whose anti-theocratic philosophy has struggled to maintain any standing against the influence of Iranian mullahs, who clearly profess the need to make the state an arm of the theocrats. The meeting with Pope Francis will give Sistani a chance to push back against that incursion and push Baghdad perhaps just a little more out of Tehran’s orbit.”
Ed Morrissey, Hot Air

“Following the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq war, the notion of a clash of civilisations between Christianity and Islam fuelled the growth of violent religious extremism… The pope’s visit to Iraq, which takes as its motto the words of Matthew’s gospel, ‘You are all brothers’, is intended to challenge such divisions and distortions of religious faith. Two years ago, Pope Francis joined with the grand imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, one of the world’s leading Sunni clerics, in a groundbreaking call for a cross-faith commitment to human fraternity. In an era of cultural and religious polarisation, alliances such as these are desperately needed to create a counter-narrative.”
Editorial Board, The Guardian

“Western heads of state and VIPs typically show up unannounced, with their itineraries a closely guarded secret. This has been standard practice in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion… The [Pope’s] visit was announced nearly three months in advance. As violence intensified and coronavirus cases increased in Iraq, so too did the Pope's resolve to carry on with the tour…

It was the 84-year-old pontiff's courage which was repeatedly applauded throughout the trip, more than the words he spoke. His choice of popemobile on a potentially risky visit -- open to the crowds rather than encased in bulletproof glass -- seemed to represent the dissolving of barriers between the papacy and the country's downtrodden. To many in the region, glued to their TV sets over the last four days, it seemed that this trip straddled an old, dark chapter and something altogether new.”
Tamara Qiblawi, CNN

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