Pope’s pathbreaking Iraq trip seeks peace - GulfToday

Pope’s pathbreaking Iraq trip seeks peace

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Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi welcomes Pope Francis at Baghdad Airport on Friday. AFP

Pope Francis, the pioneering head of over a billion Roman Catholics, always takes the road less travelled. He is indeed a unique face of the papacy. On Friday, he started his visit to Iraq, his first sojourn abroad since the coronavirus pandemic broke out and has been playing havoc with our lives with no end in sight.

By entering the conflict-riven country, the unconventional priest took a bold step by defying health and security risks to spread the message of peace and tolerance and love and growth in the Middle East.

His visit seeks, among other things, to encourage the insecure number of Christians, who reportedly face a lot of trouble, thanks to the mindless campaign of extremists who live to generate and pile anguish on harmless human beings. The Pope is urging the faithful to remain in Iraq and help rebuild the country after years of conflict leading to losses in terms of lives and property. The threat from extremists to the Christian community is an overriding concern.

Christians and churches are prime targets for extremists, which is widely condemned by the leadership and people who matter. The Pope entered Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral, hours after he arrived in Iraq for the first-ever papal visit. In this church, on Oct. 31, 2010 extremists gunned down worshippers in an attack that left 58 people dead. Forty-eight were Catholic, and the Vatican is considering their beatification as “martyrs” in the first step to possible sainthood.

Peace is something that is very elusive to all Iraqis and not only unhappy Christians. Pope Francis has talked about the heavy toll paid by Iraq’s Christian communities, saying there had been “too many martyrs”.

“I long to meet you, to see your faces, to visit your land, ancient and extraordinary cradle of civilisation,” he said.

“I come as a pilgrim, a penitent pilgrim to implore forgiveness and reconciliation from the Lord after years of war and terrorism.”

Among the most extraordinary moments of the trip will be his one-on-one meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is a top religious authority for many of the world’s Muslims.

Iraq’s Christian community is one of the oldest and most diverse in the world, with Chaldeans and other Catholics making up around half, along with Armenian Orthodox, Protestants and others. By 2003, when the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, Christians made up around six per cent of Iraq’s 25 million people. But after years of conflict, its numbers have fallen to just a few hundred thousand today.

The Pope is particularly concerned about the minority community, “who have suffered so much”. Thousands were killed when extremists swept through the strife-torn country.

The Pope is also scheduled to visit Ur, birthplace of the prophet Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews. Security has been ramped up to unprecedented levels.

The Pope’s visit serves as a morale-booster to the beleaguered Christian community in the country who don’t feel safe anymore. Some are trickling back to the nation, but others still see little prospect in staying in Iraq and are looking to settle overseas. In a world wracked by Islamophobia, the iconic Pope Francis wants to heal any divisions between the world’s two oldest civilisations, Islam and Christianity. Inter-faith harmony is key to progress, and the Pope’s Iraq visit wants to emphasise that once again. It’s an effort that shouldn’t make us tired. During his trip, Pope Francis was gifted a miniature of an extraordinary work of art by President Barham Saleh. It depicts a stage on the path to Christ’s crucifixion, designed by a Muslim artist. Fourteen stone plaques of the journey were designed by Mohammad Ghani Hikmat, one of Iraq’s most celebrated sculptors, who passed away in 2011.

The Pope is an iconic symbol of tolerance and humanity.  As Judge Mohamed Abdelsalam, Secretary-General of the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity (HCHF), said, Pope Francis’s historic trip to Iraq is a clear sign of the humanitarian approach he adopts.

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