head of the Catholic Church Pope Francis’s Trip to Iraq took place on March 5, 2021 for a four-day visit and was the first time trip of a Catholic Pope to Iraq, and his first trip since corona hit.
For analyzing this event it is first required to have some information of the current situation of the Iraqi Christian community. According to the latest census in 1987, the Iraqi Christian community numbered 1,262,000 (about 4% of Iraq’s population). The Iraqi Christians mostly lived in the cities of Basra, Nasiriyah, Baghdad,Baqubah, Amarah, Kirkuk, Sulaymaniah, Shaqlawah, Erbil, Mosul, Duhok, and Gharaghoush.
While prior to the presence of the occupying forces, the Christians lived and practiced their religion in peace and freedom, after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the conditions changed. As a result, the rampant insecurity in Iraq, also, extended to the Christians, and the Christian churches in Baghdad and other cities one after another were closed, out of security threats and concerns regarding suicide attacks. With the emergence of Isis and its dominating the provinces of Ninevah and Mosul, a new wave of violence against the Christians surged so that the Iraqi Christians mostly had to leave their homes, escape or migrate. This trend was rifer in northern part of Iraq than the other parts. Now, based on the unofficial statistics, about between 200, 000 and 300,000 Christians live in Iraq.
- Goals of the Vatican for planning Pope’s trip to Iraq
Under the current circumstances, the Vatican planned Pope’s trip to pursue such goals as:
- To encourage the migrated Iraqi Christians to return home
- To support rebuilding the Christian churches and institutes destroyed, especially after the Isis and al-Qaedeh invasion
- To support the remaining Iraqi Christians
- To request for the support of popular institutes for reconstructing of the Christians’ destroyed homes and premises during the last 20 years of unrest
- To request for better social and political positions for the Iraqi Christians
- To request revision of the laws in contradiction of the rights of the Christians ( for example, article 26 of the ID Card Act, related to considering those under 18, whose one parent have converted to Islam, as Muslim.)
- To request for more support from the government for more security for Christian-dwelling areas
- Visiting Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani:
One important part of the Pope’s trip to Iraq was his and his officials visiting Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani in Holy Najaf. This visit, unique of its kind, was a turning point in the Islam- Christianity relations, especially in the Shia- Catholic Christianity relations, and was meticulously and intelligently planned. Here we point out the main goals of Pope’s trip and those of Ayatollah al-Sistani.
- Pope’s goals for visiting Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani:
- Praising the constructive role of the Shia Marjaiyya in supporting the religious minorities, especially the Christians in Iraq.
- Requesting Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani for more support for fostering an environment for peaceful coexistence for the followers of all religions in the future of Iraq.
- Practical recognition of the Shia Islam alongside Sunni Islam which has had since years ago dialogue and strong relations with the Vatican.
- Recognizing the status of Najaf in the interfaith talks with the Shias, alongside Iran’s status which has had talks since several decades ago
- Supporting Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s views in countering Takfiri currents.
- Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s goals for visiting Pope
- Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s goals for accepting Pope’s visit can be summarized in this list:
- Presenting the rational and compassionate face of Islam, with a Shia reading in the face of a religious leader who has differing views. In an era when violent movements commit the most atrocious actions against other religions’ followers, the Shia Marjaiyya showcased the Muhammadan ethics and Alavi tradition by hosting Pope in his home.
- Declaring practical readiness for supporting peaceful coexistence among Iraq’s various religions.
- Extending sympathy with those harmed in the name of religion in Iraq.
- Condemning practically the behavior of the Takfiri currents by hosting the head of the Catholic Church at his home
- Declaring support for the Iraqi Christians’ rights.
- Reminding the role of religion and religious leaders in paying attention to the current global issues and that the religious leaders should not ignore the suffering of human communities, especially by pointing to the Palestinian issue as the most pressing and long festering wound of the Middle East, and that millions of Muslims and Christians have been harmed by the occupying Israeli regime’s policies and lost their homes.
- Pope’s visit to Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, no doubts, is the result of over three decades of interfaith dialogue between Iran and the Vatican as the center of the Catholic Church. These talks have, over the last few decades, been focused on explaining the views of Islam, and especially Shia, on various world issues, including religious and political issues and helped the Vatican better understand the role of Shi’ism in the regional affairs and relations.
- This visit will result in boosting the status of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani , not only among the Muslims and Shias, but among Iraqi minorities, especially the Iraqi Christians.
- The fact is the Iraqi Christians see Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s support more important than their own leaders’ support.
- Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s general policy is supporting the totality of Iraq and accepting its historical realities. For this, those bent on breaking up and dissolving Iraq are worried about this policy.
- That Pope has visited Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani at his home is of great importance. If the visit had taken place at another place in Najaf, it would certainly have been of less significance.
- With this historic visit, Pope showed that Islam is not limited to the Sunni reading of Islam and Pope pursues a policy of interaction with both readings.
- Pope is not expected to do much in practice to improve the West’s views toward Islam or change the western leaders’ behavior toward the Muslims. But, no doubt, by expressing his views, he can have a considerable role in changing the public view of the Christians, especially the Catholics’, toward Islam and Muslims.
- Will this visit have a fundamental impact on correction or change of discursive fundamentals between Christians and Muslims? The answer is No. No doubts, the discursive debates brought up through centuries by both sides’ theologians cannot be neither discussed nor resolved at such a visit.
- For sure, neither Muslims nor Christians are going to relinquish their faiths, but such visits can reduce the political tensions, and the human pains and sufferings and boost sympathizing with the victims and their families and, to some extent, be influential in sending moral messages.
By Mostafa Boroujerdi, Researcher of International and Foreign Policy Affairs
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)