In a joint statement, various religious organizations express joy for Pope Francis’ historic Apostolic Visit to Iraq (5-8 March) and renew their commitment to rebuilding a society based on solidarity and fraternity.
Several faith-based organizations operating in Iraq have issued a joint interreligious statement welcoming Pope Francis’ Apostolic Journey to the country which is scheduled from 5 – 8 March.
The Tuesday joint statement, co-signed by 29 organizations – both Catholic and non-Catholic – expressed collective anticipation of the papal visit, joyful that it will bring with it, a message of fraternity and dialogue to the middle eastern nation.
Recounting the history of Iraq – “the birthplace of Abraham, father of many in faith,” the statement highlights that is a beautiful country of rich cultural and religious diversity within which many ethnic and faith communities have lived side by side for many centuries. However, recent decades have been marked by war, insecurity and the rise of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) which have “deeply strained relations between communities and damaged the country’s social fabric.”
Still yet today, “Iraq still faces daunting challenges,” said the organizations. “Among the 1.2 million Iraqis who continue to be internally displaced and approximately 4.8 million returnees, many are in dire need of help.” All these, coupled with a worsening economic crisis, further exacerbated by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, is “pushing many into poverty and depriving the government of resources need to assist its own people.”
Pope Francis’ message of universal fraternity
The joint statement recalls that in the Holy Father’s latest Encyclical, Fratelli tutti, he writes that religions have a role to play at the service of fraternity in the world. In the same vein, the Abu Dhabi Document on Human Fraternity underscores that “faith leads a believer to see in the other a brother or sister to be supported and loved” and believers are called to express fraternity through safeguarding creation and supporting all people, especially the poorest and those most in need.
Inspired by these, the organizations express their support for the “message of fraternity and dialogue that Pope Francis is bringing to Iraq” adding, that they believe “it represents a necessary way forward to heal past wounds and build a future for the country’s diverse communities” as they continue to collaborate with authorities to help communities “reconcile, rebuild peace, and reclaim their collective rights to safety, services and livelihoods.”
At the same time, the organizations reiterated their commitment to continue to serve and empower people without discrimination on the basis of their needs, and respect others’ cultural values and religious convictions while rejecting all forms of sectarianism and proselytism, strengthen. They also promised to strengthen inclusive initiatives and approaches that foster social cohesion, as well as intensify collaboration between themselves in the service of those in need.
Finally, the faith-based organizations urged the international community to “remain engaged in supporting the Iraqi people to overcome their current challenges, in a true spirit of human fraternity and solidarity.”
Cardinal Parolin: Pope Francis’ visit is sign of closeness to the Church in Iraq
Pope Francis’ first papal Apostolic Journey to Iraq is scheduled to begin on Friday, 5 March. During the four-day visit, the Pope will meet with Christian communities as well as civil and religious authorities.
This will be the Holy Father’s first trip abroad in about fifteen months as the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent restrictions on movement have posed a challenge to external travel. It is also the first-ever papal journey to Iraq.
The Apostolic visit begins on Friday morning when the Pope departs from Rome for Baghdad’s International Airport. He is slated to visit several cities including Mosul, Qaraqosh and Erbil.
As preparations enter into high gear, Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, released a video message highlighting the significance of this historic visit to the Middle Eastern nation and to its Christian communities.
Sign of closeness to the Church
Speaking to Vatican News, Cardinal Parolin described the Pope’s visit as a sign of his “closeness to the Catholic Church” in the country and to its dwindling Christian communities.
“We know that the Church has suffered a lot,” Cardinal Parolin said. “It has lost many Christians who have left Iraq for other countries.”
The Church, therefore, needs the presence of the Holy Father “to be encouraged and to continue her mission of witnessing Jesus Christ and the Gospel in the difficult situation in which she finds herself,” he said.
The presence of Christians in Iraq has significantly diminished in the past two decades. In 2003, before the deposal of Saddam Hussein, there were approximately 1.4 million Christians in the country. However, thousands of Christians were killed and many others fled for their lives in the face of violence and persecution under the 2014 – 2017 occupation of the Plain of Nineveh by the so-called Islamic State.
Boosting reconstructive efforts
Another positive dimension to the Pope’s visit, according to the Cardinal, is to “boost the efforts which have already started to reconstruct the country.
These efforts, he said, are carried out on many fronts, and include fighting corruption and sectarianism, and ensuring that everyone is treated equally – “giving to everyone their deserved places in the fabric of society notwithstanding their religious belonging or class.”
Of major importance also, is the interreligious significance of the Pope’s visit.
As part of his itinerary, the Pope will travel to the holy city of Najaf to meet with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is an influential Muslim cleric
Pope Francis has been an outspoken proponent of interfaith efforts. In February 2019, the Pope and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar in Cairo, Ahmed al-Tayeb, signed a historic declaration on Fraternity in Abu Dhabi.
The Pope’s visit, Cardinal Parolin concluded, will be an occasion of “interreligious dialogue, collaboration, understanding and fraternity between Christians and Muslims in view of the good of the country and its brighter future.”