During his three-day visit to Iraq, which begins this Friday (5), Pope Francis probably has two main goals in mind which may seem contradictory, but which are in fact complementary. Its presence in this conflicted region would help, on the one hand, to protect the cornered Christians of the Middle East and, on the other hand, to strengthen the dialogue of the Catholic Church with Islam, in particular in its Shiite version. .
The most historically important moment of the visit must be linked to this second point. In addition to being the first pope to visit Iraqi territory (John Paul II and Benedict tried to get there, but never succeeded), Francis will be the first pontiff to meet what is considered to be the main authority of Shia Muslims, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. The meeting will take place in Najaf, a city which, for this great subdivision of Islamism, loses in sanctity only for the benefit of Mecca and Medina, the two capitals of the Prophet Muhammad.
In a way, Francisco has been going in this direction since he was Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, responsible for the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires. In his native country, he developed cordial relations with the Islamic Center of the Argentine Republic and befriended Imam Omar Abboud, with whom he eventually traveled to the Holy Land after becoming pope.
Approaching gestures like these were already made by previous popes. But the Argentine pontiff went further by including another Muslim partner, the Egyptian Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, in the very text of his latest encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” (all brothers, in Italian). Today, the encyclicals are the papal documents with the greatest doctrinal weight, and Francisco insisted that the collaboration with Al-Tayyeb was one of the great inspirations of the work.
“Francisco was able to reach out to branches of the Islamic world that his predecessors were not able to reach so easily. His tongue also helps. No pope before him has called Islam a “partner” in achieving peace in the Mediterranean. That says a lot, ”says Brazilian Vaticanist Mirticeli Medeiros, a doctoral student in the history of Catholicism at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
Medeiros also points out that the pope’s concern over the issue of immigrants and the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities has spread to Muslim groups, such as the Uyghurs, in China, and the Rohingyas, in Myanmar. Francisco also strongly criticized the discrimination against Islamic immigrants in Europe. “To reject a migrant in difficulty, whatever his religion, for fear of diluting ‘Christian’ culture is a grotesque distortion of both Christianity and culture,” he wrote in his latest book, “Let’s Dream Together” .
Alongside these humanitarian concerns, there is geopolitics and those which imply the importance of the historical presence of Christianity in the Middle East. On these points, there is also considerable alignment between the Vatican and some of the main Muslim authorities.
Regardless of the hierarchy of Islam, for example, the expansion of terrorist fundamentalism inside or outside the region – not only because of the damage that attacks on civilians do to the image of Muslims. , but also due to the fact that the traditional clergy themselves, comparatively more moderate, may become the target of radicals.
Over the past decade, a large portion of the Iraqi population (and in particular non-Muslim minorities in the region) have been subjected to repeated episodes of religious persecution and ethnic cleansing at the hands of self-proclaimed Islamic State terrorists. . The territory is home to some of the oldest Christian communities in the world, some of which still use the Syriac language in religious ceremonies or even in everyday life – essentially a version of Aramaic, the native language of Jesus and his first disciples.
Some of these communities are directly linked to Rome, such as the Chaldean Catholic Church, while others are independent. But Francis, who often speaks of an “blood ecumenism” forged by the persecution of Christians in the modern world, intends to use this visit as a sign of solidarity with all the churches of ancient Mesopotamia. He must, for example, visit places on the Nineveh Plain, historically the most important center of Christian faith in the country. A trip to the area of the ancient city of Ur is also planned. According to tradition, it is the homeland of the biblical patriarch Abraham, considered a biological ancestor of Jews and Arabs – and, spiritually, also of Christians, reinforcing the interfaith aspect of the papal visit.
Despite the demise of the Islamic State, the situation of Iraqi Christian communities is still critical: hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians have left the country in recent decades, and those who remain still suffer from the neglect of the Iraqi government and the presence of radical Shiite militias. .inside the country.
While there seems to be something magical about the idea that Francisco could bring some peace to Iraq, the Argentine Pope has already shown that he is capable of positively influencing complex diplomatic negotiations, such as those involving actions against climate change and relations between the United States. States and Cuba. In both cases, it is true, the extreme right destroyed the advances for which the pontiff worked. It remains to be seen what will happen in the complex Iraqi context. We are a family business.