It is wonderful and indeed inspirational, that Pope Francis went to Iraq last week. Clearly it was dangerous. His personal security at risk. Yet, he said that he felt “duty bound” to make the “emblematic” journey (years in the making). There was, he said “no time to lose to bring the message of peace and hope to Iraq”. Iraq so central to Christianity (from the first century) had waited too long. Its persecuted minority Christians needed to be emboldened, to remain.
The Pope prayed at St Joseph’s Cathedral, in Bagdad a city wracked by war and division. He visited the ancient city of Ur, deemed the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, revered in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, seeking to bring about interfaith dialogue and reconciliation across Shia, Sunni, Christian and Yazidi faiths. He met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani at the holy city of Najah, one of the most powerful religious leaders in Shia Islam, and a voice of moderation. The pope’s plea: that the Christian community in Iraq, have prominent roles in Iraqi society, with full rights, freedoms, and responsibilities. The basic freedoms we all enjoy at home.
At Mosul, in northern Iraq, the pope prayed in Church Square for an end to violence and extremism, surrounded by crumbling hazardous church buildings. He prayed for the thousands who perished there at the hands of Daesh (the Islamic State group) or fled with their lives, were kidnapped, sold as slaves, subjected to physical violence, or forced conversion, (a Christian community diminished from 1.4M to just under 250,000 or less than 1% of the population in two decades). He prayed for the ongoing exodus of Christians from Iraq and the wider Middle East, the cradle of civilisation due to persecution and discrimination. At a Mass gathering in Irbil, he said “Iraq would stay in my heart”. It will stay in mine too. I lived in the Middle East and made my Holy Communion (and confirmation) there! At that time, we lived together, peaceably, Christians, Muslins, Druze, Maronite, and Jews.
Pope Francis went to the desert with deep love in his heart and with conviction to speak for the suppressed. To pray, weep and hold the broken. We are all part of the one diverse Christian family. (Chaldean Catholics, Assyrian, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Anglican, Evangelical or Protestant).
My heart is filled with Hope, by the actions of Pope Francis as peacemaker. Reaching out is his “signature”. The first meeting of its kind ever in Iraq or between a Pope and a Grand Ayatollah. I think, happy are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. And I wonder this Lenten time about my own world view. Does my own inner persecutor seek to control and curtail the freedom of others or shape them to my world view and expectations, on pain of isolation or rejection; or does my inner peacemaker reach out, and permit others to live in joy, freedom, and peace, to be the person God always intended them to be? This lent I am called to listen. The pope is saying a lot, if I could just listen, at least for a moment!
And the Pope’s prayer for Iraq:
“May the clash of arms be silenced … may there be an end to acts of violence and extremism, factions and intolerance“
Audrey O’Sullivan, Chairperson, Mount Merrion Pastoral Parish Council