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The symbolic power of the papal visit to Iraq

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Popes have not always yearned for coexistence with the peoples living in what is now Iraq. Around 1263, Pope Urban IV issued a papal bull that cautiously welcomed Hulagu Khan, a Mongol warlord who the pope hoped would convert to Christianity. To the enthusiasm of onlookers in Christendom, Hulagu and his allies had sacked and slaughtered their way through some of the greatest cities of the Islamic world.

His army’s destruction of Baghdad was so complete that the ruined seat of the Caliphate would not recover for centuries to come. After a different attack, as a lesson to the defeated defenders of Mosul, Hulagu took the local leader and had him, according to one account, “fastened tightly inside a fresh sheepskin and left in the sun, where vermin ate him alive for a month until he died.”

Pope Francis calls for hope over hatred amid ruins of Mosul church

But on Sunday, on the final full day of a visit to Iraq layered in history and symbolism, Pope Francis arrived in the environs of Mosul as a self-styled “pilgrim for peace,” carrying out the first papal visit to a land teeming with traces of biblical antiquity.

“Our gathering here today shows that terrorism and death never have the last word,” Francis said, speaking amid the rubble of an old church that only a few years ago had been used as a prison and shooting range by the extremists of the Islamic State. “Even amid the ravages of terrorism and war, we can see, with the eyes of faith, the triumph of life over death.”

Pope Francis’s historic visit to Iraq, in images

The pope’s Iraq sojourn was all the more striking for its timing, with the world still gripped by the coronavirus pandemic. “He is traveling at a time when other global figures are staying put, aiming to play a hand in the reconstruction of a country where decades of efforts have failed,” my colleagues wrote. “His trip amounts to a show of encouragement for a nation trying to recover from the chaos of a U.S.-led invasion and the brutality of the Islamic State, a group that once vowed to ‘conquer Rome.’”

On Friday, he went to the holy city of Najaf and held a historic closed-door meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the preeminent religious figure for Iraqi Shiites. Then, from a stage facing a desert plain at Ur — the site of one of the most important city states of ancient Mesopotamia, and by tradition the birthplace of Abraham, revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews alike — he spoke of tolerance, coexistence and interdependence between religious communities. “We need each other,” he said.

In Iraq, Pope Francis holds historic talks with Shiite ayatollah, decries religious violence at ancient Ur

Though home to some of Christianity’s oldest communities and sites, Iraq has seen its Christian population shrink drastically over the past few decades, an exodus exacerbated by the rise of the Islamic State in 2014. Violence against religious minorities, including Yazidis and Iraqi Chaldeans, tantamount to genocide, followed the militants’ capture of Mosul. They also destroyed many of the city’s churches.

The pope’s visit was a celebration of Iraq’s history of pluralism, a legacy he hoped would persevere. “The religious, cultural and ethnic diversity that has been a hallmark of Iraqi society for millennia is a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to be eliminated,” he said during a speech at Iraq’s presidential palace.

Why the pope’s visit matters for Iraq’s Christians

There’s plenty in the pope’s visit to be cynical about, too. Some of Francis’s sermons in Iraq took place in crammed halls whose poor ventilation and lack of effective coronavirus protocols raised fears of potential superspreader events. And for all the pope’s virtuous messaging, the situation on the ground remains marked by simmering conflicts, sectarian enmities and broader popular discontent with the government.

While Iraqi authorities unfurled a giant security cordon to support the papal visit, some ordinary Iraqis felt neglected by the pageantry.

“We were not allowed to go to Ur because we are just regular people,” Haider Khuder, a member of the writers union of the city of Nasiriyah, close to Ur, told my colleagues while gesturing at the trash that lined a row of shuttered shops. “They have spent so much money on this visit and yet here they spend nothing, look around you.”

As Pope Francis visits Iraq to spread message of peace, his events also bring worries about spreading coronavirus

Others are more optimistic that the visit could mark the beginning of a more substantive moment of reconciliation. Speaking to Iraqis, the pope commands a moral authority that perhaps no secular Western leader — especially those implicated in a recent history of misadventure in the Middle East — could match.

“Here in Iraq, the U.S. occupation followed by the acts of violence by al-Qaeda and then later by Islamic State terrorists — all of these consecutive events have contributed to the emigration of Christians,” Rayan al-Kildani, a controversial (and U.S.-sanctioned) leader of an Iraqi Christian militia with ties to Iran, told Amwaj Media. The rapturous reception the pope received, he insisted, was a sign “that Christians do not want to emigrate, they don’t want to leave Iraq.”

Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako, one of the key organizers of the trip and Iraq’s only Catholic cardinal, told the Financial Times that he hoped the pope’s message would lead to a “reality of goodness.”

Otherwise, “we will remain miserable and we will tear each other down and destroy this country that is a cradle of Akkadian and Sumerian and Islamic and Christian civilizations, and then what’s the result?” he said. “Nothing.”

Sako had been urging the pontiff to come to Iraq since 2013. But then the Islamic State surged, unleashing untold horrors and desecrating sites holy to all Abrahamic faiths.

“This has never happened in Christian or Islamic history,” Sako said in 2014. “Even Genghis Khan or Hulagu didn’t do this.”

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