Bringing hope in Iraq

On March 4, Alitalia flight A330 landed at Baghdad International Airport at around 2pm local time. The plane was carrying Pope Francis as he began his apostolic journey to Iraq, a land known as the cradle of many a glorious civilisation, but which now lies in ruin after more than 30 years of war and sanctions, two decades of al-Qaeda terrorist attacks and the recent brutal occupation of large swathes of its territory by ISIS. 

For decades, Christians were victims of sectarian wars. Many of them were brutally murdered (among them priests such as Fr Ragheed Ganni, who was a former student of mine at the Angelicum University in Rome), others had to flee their homes in the north and find refuge in Kurdish territory. All this for the simple reason that they were Christians. 

A community that once numbered almost 1.5 million is now reduced to just about 250,000. The rest have fled abroad seeing no future for themselves or for their children in their war-torn country. In many cases they have been made to feel outsiders in their own homeland. 

And yet, Iraqi Christians were for centuries the backbone of Islamic civilisation, especially during the rule of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258). When the Caliph Al-Ma’mūn (813-833) decided to make Baghdad the intellectual centre of his empire by establishing the Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom), it is to Christians mainly that he turned in order to undertake the task of translating the great works of Hellenic civilisation from Greek into Arabic. 

Christian scholars were trilingual, fluent in Greek, Syriac (their mother tongue) and Arabic. They translated the works of the great Greek philosophers and men of science; they also provided a vocabulary of technical terms in Arabic in order to facilitate the absorption of Greek thought into the fabric of Islamic civilisation. Later these translations found their way into the academic centres of Europe via Spain. 

There, especially in Toledo (which was the first Muslim city to fall to the Christian armies during the Reconquista), they were translated into Latin and provided the foundations of western scholastic thought in the 13th century. Christian scholars were also teachers of renowned Muslim philosophers such as al-Fārābī (d. 950), and he in turn had Christian students (such as Yahyā b. ‘Ādī, d. 974) in his philosophy classes. 

Medieval Iraqi Christian bishops engaged in fascinating theological dialogues with Muslim authorities. Mention could also be made of the one between Elias of Nisibis and Abbasid vizier al-Maghribī, which occurred around the year 1026. This meeting took place because the latter had fallen seriously ill and was nursed back to health by Christian monks who welcomed him in their monastery. 

The pope’s visit to Iraq had a three-fold purpose. On the one hand, he went in obedience to Jesus’s instruction to Peter, “Strengthen your brothers”. Were it not for the solidarity demonstrated by organisations such as Aid to the Church in Need, Iraqi Christians would now be on the brink of despair. In his address given at the Syro-Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, the pope recalled the 48 worshippers including women and children, and two young priests who were killed there in a terrorist attack back in 2010. 

In spite of their fears and endless sufferings, Iraqi Christians have continuously heeded the words of Pope Francis’s predecessor, St Peter, as he advised the Christians of Asia Minor who were experiencing a similar plight: “Always be prepared to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence”. 

This attitude was reflected in Pope Francis’s homily during the Divine Liturgy celebrated at St Joseph’s Chaldean Cathedral in Baghdad where he urged Catholics to “live a life shaped by the Beatitudes”. The second purpose was that of bringing reconciliation by encouraging the promotion of justice and accountability. In his speech delivered at the presidential palace, he had this to say to the authorities who were present: 

“As governmental leaders and diplomats, you are called to foster this spirit of fraternal solidarity. It is necessary, but not sufficient, to combat the scourge of corruption, misuse of power and disregard for law. Also necessary is the promotion of justice and the fostering of honesty, transparency and the strengthening of the institutions responsible in this regard.” 

The third purpose was that of building bridges between the various Christian and Muslim communities in the name of the common citizenship that they possess. It was precisely for this reason that the pope praised Grand Ayatollah al-Sistānī for his and the Shīa community’s efforts in fostering peace through his defence of the vulnerable and the persecuted, his affirmation of the sacredness of human life and the importance of unity among the Iraqi people, irrespective of creed or political standing. 

This urgency for peace and reconciliation was reiterated during the interreligious encounter that took place in Ur, the home city of Abraham. In Abraham Jews, Christians and Muslims find an example of how God relates to us and of how we should relate to him. For this reason, the pope declared unequivocally that “we believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion; indeed, we are called unambiguously to dispel all misunderstandings. Let us not allow the light of heaven to be overshadowed by the clouds of hatred!” 

Thus, the pope conveyed the message that, irrespective of our religious affiliations, we are all family or, to use his own words, we are “fratelli tutti”. Pope Francis acknowledges that the past should serve as a lesson for the future of the people of Iraq. Together, Christians and Muslims and people of other religions, such as the Yazidis (another greatly persecuted community), have a common mission: that of rebuilding their common homeland. 

A three-day visit may appear too little, but the pope’s serious engagement in interreligious dialogue and the respect he has won throughout the Muslim world bode well for this brave enterprise which is still very much a work-in-progress. 

Fr Joseph Ellul OP, chairman, Commission for Interreligious Dialogue, Archdiocese of Malta.

Post a Comment