Iraqis welcome Pope as 'messenger of unity'

Iraqis welcome Pope as 'messenger of unity'
Pope Francis used the imagery of the fabrics that make up a carpet to illustrate how Iraq's single churches, each a thread, make up the community and society.
5 min read
06 March, 2021
Small spontaneous gatherings of people appeared whenever the Pope was in transit [AFP]
Editor's note: This article is part of our special coverage of Pope Francis' visit to Iraq. The rest of our coverage can be accessed on this regularly updated portal.

Baghdad, Iraq - The Alitalia flight taking Pope Francis on his historic trip to Iraq arrived early than planned on Friday, forcing it to make a few loops before landing at the Baghdad International Airport, previously known as Saddam International Airport.

Strong wind ruffled the Holy Father's white gown as he walked down the tarmac. Signs with 'Welcome Pope Francis in Mesopotamia' were visible all through the terminal.

One stood out in particular: it stood near an plasma screen image of Qassem Soleimani, head of the Al Quds forces, with Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, PMU commander – both killed last year on the road to the airport by a US drone. The interspacing of the posters of the Pope with those of the slain commanders who, whether loathed or adored- were important figures for Iraq, underscored the weight of the Papal pilgramage.

While Baghdad remains under lockdown due to the pandemic, with check-points dotted along otherwise busy streets, the anticipation was palpaple. Murals depicting Pope Francis were seen and small spontaneous gatherings of people appeared whenever he was in transit, moved either by curiosity or hopeful of gaining a glimpse of the unusual visitor. Al-Iraqiya satellite TV was covering the event with a live broadcast.

It was the first trip the the Holy Father had taken outside Italy since the pandemic began. He walked with a noticeable limp, perhaps due to his sciatic nerve, a condition from which he suffers. If his voice at times appeared frail, his speeches were strong and rich in metaphors. He described himself as 'a pilgrim of peace' the day before he arrived.

Francis was welcomed at the airport by Prime Minister Mustapha Al-Kadhemi, followed by a meeting with Presisent Barham Salih. The President gifted the Pope with a small scaled replica of 'The Way of Suffering' mural, designed by the sculptor Muhammad Ghani Hekmat and situated in the Ascension church in Baghdad.

Francis' last stop of the day, the most meaningful, was at the Syro-Catholic Cathedral of '"Our Lady of Salvation" (Sayedat al Najat) in Baghdad. There, a communinity of bishops, priests, consecrated persons, seminarists and cathechists sat in the small church, listening and cheering. Children of different ages, families and clergy who could not be seated inside followed the speech from an improvised courtyard outside, where a large screen projected the events of the mass. Snipers were perched on roofs surrounding the church.

The Pope chose to open his speech in the same way he closed it: a remembrance of the 47 victims of an attack on the church carried out by Islamic State of Iraq, a precursor group of IS, on 31 October 2010.

It was hard not to notice the huge poster which greets visitors at the cathedral's entrance, showing the faces of those who lost their lives. Children, women and men including two priests were killed that fateful day. The walls were riddled with bullets and shrapnel, but the church itself was restored in 2012. The victims' names are carved in the wood around the cathedral's nave and a red marble line runs on the floor from the altar ending on the esplanade, symbolising the bloodshed.

Read also: Pope urges Iraq to embrace its Christians on historic visit

The Holy Father used the imagery of the different fabrics that make up a carpet to illustrate how the single churches in Iraq represent a 'thread' and how together they make the community and society. The importance of fraternal principles of coexistence were again highlighted. Donning a beautifully woven stole, toward the end of the cerimony, Pope Francis repeated the metaphor of fraternity and the different 'fabrics' that made society, remarking: "this garment you see me wearing was made in Qaraqosh". He will head their on Sunday 7 March.

The fabric to which he referred, the Christian churches in Iraq, is rich. It is composed of the Chaldean church, the Syriac Catholic church, the Armenian church, the Melkite Greek Catholic church, the Latin church,the Assyrian church of the East, the Ancient Eastern church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox church, the Greek Orthodox church, the Coptic Orthodox church and the National Evangelical Presbyterian church.

Dr. Feisal Al-Israbadi, an Iraqi lawyer and one of the main drafters of the country's Transitional Administrative law, notes that since 2003 "the de-Christianisation of Iraq cannot be traced to government actions."

"It is tied to the rise of terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda first and later IS. The Pope is not just a symbol for Catholics, he plays a role for people around the world of all faiths," Dr Al-Israbadi told The New Arab.

"I believe the government in Baghad as well favors the meeting of the Pope with the Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani. It is highly significant to have the faiths talking to one another and showing respect for one another, an important symbolic step".

Dr Israbadi believes the modest way of life that Al-Sistani chooses is shared with the one embraced by Pope Francis, at least the latter's private residence.

The pilgrimage to Iraq has had a positive effect in unifying Iraqis welcoming the event, but as he put it "the real work of unifying the Iraqis is something the Iraqis have to do".

While the Vatican's understanding of the term 'fraternity' may resonate with the concept of 'citizenship', he said that in Iraq "there is a gap".

"The status of the citizen in Iraq is not what connects the individual to the state. People in Iraq for the most part do not perceive their relationship to the state as based on their sectarian identities, while both the Constitution and the political class do".

The Pope will start his second day with the widely anticipated meeting with Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani, followed by an interfaith meeting in Ur and closing with a mass in the Chaldean cathedral of Saint Joseph in Baghdad.

Baghdad was known in Abbasid times as 'Madinat as Salam', the city of peace. Today, despite the enormous problems, the city and Iraqis welcomed the Pope as a messenger of unity.

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