Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq shows how love will ultimately prevail
Pope Francis is visiting Najaf, which will be a moment of great significance. Christians not only in Iraq, but all over the Arab world, are rejoicing. Since the eruption of the so-called Arab Spring and the turbulence that came with it, Christians have been among the most affected.
Christianity, which came out of Palestine, has been drained by wars and conflicts in the Arab world. The first hit that Christians received in Iraq came following the US invasion of 2003. Despite Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule, Christians as a minority posed no threat to him. To a certain extent, they were protected. However, the fall of the regime and the chaos that came after led to the rise of extremist groups. Those groups posed an existential threat to Christians in Iraq.
The West opened the doors of immigration to Christian Iraqis. This helped them as individuals, but not as a community inside Iraq. The Christian population started dwindling. This story repeated itself with the rise of Daesh following the withdrawal of US troops and the start of the Syrian conflict. The fundamentalist group started persecuting those it labeled as “infidels.” The pre-2003 1.5 million-strong population is estimated today to have dropped to just 300,000.
However, the visit of Pope Francis begins a new chapter not only for Christians in Iraq but for all Eastern Christians. It is a message that the world has not forgotten them. It is a show of support but also a call for resilience. The message is clear: Iraq is your home, hold on to it.
While the streets of Najaf are being groomed and flags of both Iraq and Vatican City are being erected, and while committees are being set up to organize the visit and make sure that everything is up to standard, some spoilers are taking umbrage. They feel resentment for several reasons. To start with, the pope visiting Najaf is international recognition that it is the supreme marjaeya, or reference point, for all Shiites. This tilts the balance in favor of Najaf as opposed to Qom. Some don’t want Iraq getting international attention because they want to keep it as their playing field. Iraq was the first Arab country to receive a call from new US President Joe Biden. And some simply don’t want to see the social cohesion message of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani panning out. Opponents of the pope’s visit have even gone to the extent of spreading rumors that Al-Sistani has COVID-19. However, such petty and sneaky acts do not seem to have deterred either the visitor or the host.
The pope’s imminent meeting with Al-Sistani shows support for the latter’s philosophy and his path
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
The pope’s imminent meeting with Al-Sistani shows support for the latter’s philosophy and his path. Al-Sistani represents co-existence with, acceptance of and respect for the “other.” It is one step ahead of tolerance. The visit falls in line with Al-Sistani’s line of thinking, which always seeks social cohesion and fights sectarianism, despite the immense pressure he has been placed under. For example, in the midst of a bloody Sunni-Shiite conflict, a group of Shiites came to him and referred to Sunnis as their brothers; he corrected them by saying: “Don’t say Sunnis are our brothers, they are ourselves.” This line of thinking is portrayed in a poster featuring Pope Francis and Al-Sistani with doves above their heads. The tagline says, “We are part of you and you are part of us.” This shows the centrality of the human element in Islam, where human dignity trumps the divisions that usually have political roots.
The Najaf-based Al-Khoei Institute said the visit is a product of many years of inter-religious dialogue. And a scholar from the Hawza of Najaf said it will be of great significance to Iraq, which is the home of Abraham, the father of all prophets.
The visit is also of great importance to the Christians of the East. It is a message to them that they are an important and indigenous component of the social fabric of the Arab world; that Christianity came from the East and the East will always be its home; that there is a place for diversity and that diversity does not mean division; and that co-existence and respect will ultimately prevail. Haidar Al-Khoei, the foreign relations director at Al-Khoei Institute, said: “In 2014, when (Daesh) took over Mosul, there were 17 Christian students in the University of Mosul, today there are 863. (Daesh) were determined to destroy Iraq’s pluralism but Iraqis are more determined to preserve it.”
On Sunday, Pope Francis will stand in the remains of Al-Tahera Church in Mosul, which was decimated by Daesh. This symbolic act shows that love and clemency is stronger than hate and violence. In the end, Daesh withered away from Mosul, but love will prevail.
• Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.