On the eve of a historic trip to Iraq, Pope Francis on Thursday sent a vibrant and very personal message to the Iraqis, evoking their “years of war and terrorism” and calling for “reconciliation”.
“I am so eager to meet you, to see your faces, to visit your land, the ancient and extraordinary cradle of civilization,” the Argentinean pope said in a video message. He will visit the four corners of Iraq for three days, especially to meet a Christian community greatly reduced by exile.
The visit will nevertheless be just as virtual for a large part of Iraqis, who will have to content themselves with watching this global star on television, the country being placed in strict confinement at the weekend after a rise in coronavirus cases. Arriving in Baghdad on Friday, it is undoubtedly in an armored car that the pope will discover a capital with empty streets.
“I come as a pilgrim, as a penitent pilgrim to implore the Lord’s forgiveness and reconciliation after so many years of war and terrorism,” said the pope, who placed his trip under the sign of “peace” and “fraternity”.
“You are all brothers and sisters,” insisted a pontiff, who never ceases to hammer away at these words, to the point of having recently dedicated a long encyclical entitled “Fratelli tutti” (“All Brothers”) to them.
The pope also made a very symbolic visit to the birthplace of Abraham, a figure from the Old Testament, “who unites Muslims, Jews and Christians in one family,” he recalled, expressing his desire to pray with the faithful of other religious traditions.
This call to fraternity has taken on a particular resonance in the past year in the midst of the health and economic disaster caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which should lead to a better world according to the Pope’s wishes.
“In these difficult times of pandemic, let us help one another to strengthen fraternity, to build together a future of peace,” said Argentinean Jorge Bergoglio.
“Rebuild and begin again”.
“You still have in your eyes the images of destroyed houses and desecrated churches, and in your hearts the wounds of broken attachments and abandoned houses,” he lamented to the specific address of the “too many” Christian martyrs of Iraq.
“I would like to bring you the affectionate caress of the whole Church, which is close to you and to the tormented Middle East and which encourages you to move forward. Let us not allow the terrible sufferings you have experienced, which afflict me so much, to prevail,” he added.
In the early 2000s, Christians were a strong minority of some 1.5 million Iraqis. Today, they would be between 300,000 and 500,000 (1 to 2.5% of the total population), according to a range of estimates by the French association L’Œuvre d’Orient.
Since the beginning of his pontificate eight years ago, François has often addressed messages to the Iraqi population, and to neighboring Syria, which has been living for decades at the rhythm of war.
When he goes there, he applies what he asks of the Catholic clergy, going out and going to the bedside of those who are suffering on the “periphery” of the planet.
“I have thought a lot about you during these years, about you who have suffered a lot but who have not let yourselves be beaten down. To you, Christians, Muslims, to you, peoples, like the Yezidi, who have suffered so much,” Pope Francis confided, calling for “the hope that encourages us to rebuild and begin again.
Pope Francis is expected on Friday in Baghdad and Sunday in Erbil (Iraqi Kurdistan), where he is to celebrate his only Mass in a stadium in front of about 10,000 Christian faithful. He will not go to Mosul, the former stronghold of the Islamic state.
For the first time in history, a pope will also be received on Saturday in the holy city of Najaf (south) by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in person. The frail 90-year-old man, the highest authority for many Shiites in Iraq and around the world, normally never appears in public.