Middle East

Pope Francis Ends Historic Trip at a Critical Moment for Iraq

ERBIL, Iraq — Pope Francis concluded on Monday a trip to Iraq that made history with every step and demonstrated that Iraq, still beset by violence and recovering from decades of war and mismanagement, was able to pull off a visit that would have posed a challenge for any country.

“It’s huge. It’s huge,” President Barham Salih told The New York Times about the importance of the visit after seeing Francis off at Baghdad airport. “I am not underestimating the challenges facing Iraq, but the visit by the pope was a remarkable affirmation of the essence of these values of tolerance and coexistence that are deeply rooted in Iraqi society,” said Mr. Salih, who is Kurdish.

For Iraqi officials, the visit was an affirmation of the country’s importance in the region, after years of isolation by Sunni Arab countries because of Iraq’s Shiite majority leadership. It was also a support for leaders who have expressed concern about how sectarian and political divisions have weakened the country.

The stops on the 84-year-old pontiff’s four-day trip illustrated the hollowing out of the historic religious diversity in a land seen as the birthplace of monotheistic religions; a country badly scarred by sectarian violence and the legacy of the Islamic State’s brutal takeover of parts of northern Iraq and Syria.

Francis on arriving on his first trip abroad since the pandemic referred to it as his duty to visit “a land martyred for so many years.”

In the south of Iraq, at the site of the reputed birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, Francis appeared onstage on the windswept plains of Ur alongside elders from Indigenous religions whose numbers, along with Christians, have fallen drastically since 2003. The provincial capitol, Nasiriya, just a few miles from Ur, now has only one Christian family left.

In the north, Francis prayed against the backdrop of partially destroyed churches, damaged by ISIS and by the 2017 battle by US-led Iraqi forces that drove the Islamic State from the city. The pontiff was seated on a platform on a white chair; a cross made of burned timbers from one of the Christian towns occupied by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, was propped up behind him.

“Just the backdrop of destroyed churches and a broken cross is a very powerful message that ISIS doesn’t belong in Iraq, but the Christian Iraqis are an Indigenous community and they belong in this land,” said Hayder Khoei, an Iraqi analyst.

Mr. Khoei, the grandson of the influential Grand Ayatollah Abulqasim Musawi al-Khoie, said he believed the pope’s meeting with the 90-year-old Grand Aytatollah Ali al-Sistani, now Iraq’s most revered Shiite authority, focused attention on voices of peace and tolerance in the country that are often drowned out by those promoting violence.

Speaking to reporters on his plane after leaving Iraq, Francis said he was honored to meet with Ayatollah al-Sistani. “He is a beacon,” the pope said. “And these wise men are everywhere because God’s wisdom has been scattered all over the world.”

Iraq conducted its biggest security operation in years in the six communities where the pope traveled. Just days after he arrived, the Vatican said he would press on with the trip despite a recent rocket attack in the west of the country.

Iraqi political leaders generally travel amid immense secrecy. Stops on the pope’s visit in contrast were publicly announced more than a week in advance.

“To come to Iraq itself takes courage but to come to Iraq and tell the world exactly where you will be and when is quite something else,” Mr. al-Khoe said.

The Vatican’s foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, said in an interview on the plane, “You don’t resolve the problems of a country like Iraq overnight and with a bit of ecumenism.”

He said that the pope’s visit had “overcome lots of obstacles and I think that sends a strong message.”

Archbishop Gallagher added that the pope, in a spiritual way, was signaling to other actors in the region as well: “No we shouldn’t just abdicate our responsibility or contribution. We can all do something.”

The visit gave comfort to the country’s remaining Christians who have begun to feel like strangers in their own country.

One stop was in Qaraqosh, about 20 miles from Mosul, the northern city where ISIS declared its self-described Islamic State. Four years after the militants were driven out of the area, about half of the 50,000 residents have returned to the town, and they spent months repairing buildings to welcome the pope.

Thousands of residents lined roads waiting for his arrival Sunday, including Roni Momika, a parish priest who grabbed a traditional brown and white scarf and danced in the street.

“I was dancing because I was very happy and very proud that Pope Francis decided to visit us,” he said. “We were refugees, and Pope Francis was praying for us every day. Now he came here to pray for us in our home.”

In Erbil, the capitol of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, Francis thanking the Kurdish government for taking in more than 140,000 Christians who had fled their homes on the Nineveh Plains during the ISIS takeover.

Signaling his concern for displaced people in the region, Francis met on Sunday with the father of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy killed when his family’s rubber dinghy capsized between Turkey and Greece. The photo of the small boy’s body washed up on a beach in Greece helped focus attention on the plight of refugees and migrants desperate to reach Europe.

Iraqi officials said they hoped to start an ongoing interreligious dialogue, but acknowledged the difficulties ahead.

“The pope, he cannot make a miracle ,” said Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, the Iraqi Christian leader whom France promoted in 2018. “We sows the seeds, but we have to water them, and God will bless them and let them grow.”

Jason Horowitz contributed reporting.

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