By Tim Maby
The Pope’s visit this week to Iraq is “the riskiest trip that he has taken, because of the impact of Covid and because of the security situation”, according to Christopher Lamb, Vatican correspondent for The Tablet.
He told a Religion Media Centre briefing that he believes Pope Francis thinks sometimes that the riskiest trips are the ones that have the greatest benefit. A Vatican spokesman had said this trip was “an act of love to a country that has suffered terribly over recent decades”.
The aims were to encourage the Christian community in Iraq, to encourage inter-religious dialogue and to make his first visit to a Shia-majority Muslim country.
The Christian population of Iraq has fallen from an estimated 1.5 million to 300,000 since 2003. Yet it is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. And Iraq is the cradle of the Jewish faith, with countless prophets and stories steeped in its history.
The Pope will attend an inter-religious dialogue in Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, and go on to meet Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shia religious leader of Iraq, in Najaf.
Professor Sajjad Rizvi, director of the Centre for the Study of Islam at Exeter University, told the briefing that Ayatollah Sistani was a global Muslim leader with the largest following across the world. He has provided legitimacy to and guaranteed the political process in Iraq since the war. The Ayatollah has supported the constitution while remaining an independent figure.
Professor Rizvi said the Baghdad government hoped to promote the idea that Iraq was still a place of multiple communities. Najaf is seen by the Muslim community in Iraq as their equivalent of the Vatican, so for them this is a kind of meeting of equals.
Julia Bicknell of the World Watch Monitor told the briefing that the Christian church in Iraq was 2,000 years old and had accounted for about 12 per cent of the population in 1948. When in 2014 Isis swept in, people fled the many villages in the north and around the cities of Mosul and Erbil. Although many of their homes have been rebuilt, most fear returning. They no longer trust the residents and they are not sure of work, business or education.
Rabee al-Hafidh, a spokesman for the British-based Mosul Foundation, joined the briefing. He said that multiculturalism in Mosul went back centuries and that people in Mosul “know how to live in brotherhood”. He said Iraq had previously been a secular society. That was now impossible because the country was run by militias and so refugees were still leaving. He felt it was Ayatollah Sistani’s fault, because he had supported this new regime. The papal visit, therefore, was “on the wrong side of the struggle”, he said.
Professor Rizvi disagreed that the Ayatollah was the “deep state” in Iraq, in the way of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. Sistani has, the professor said, argued for the demilitarisation of the militias and he has supported the protests against government corruption. But he does not have the power to effect the change.
Edwin Shuker, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, also joined the briefing. He was born in Baghdad, but had been driven out with his family in 1971 and did not want the history of Jews in Iraq to be wiped out. An appeal for a delegation of Jews to accompany the Pope had been refused by the Iraqi government, he said.
Christopher Lamb said the Pope would be trying to promote the idea of Iraq as a democratic multicultural state, rather than a theocracy. The Vatican hoped that his meeting with the Ayatollah would “send a message that religion is not the problem for society, but part of the solution for building a healthy society”.
The Vatican has tried throughout the wars in Iraq to keep a diplomatic link and travelling with the Pope will be Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the ambassador who stayed in Baghdad throughout the war. The Pope will pray at churches near Mosul that were destroyed by Isis. Francis hopes, Christopher Lamb said, to send a message that religions can come together to bring peace and his motto is that “we are all brothers”.
View the media briefing here