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Pope Francis visits Iraq: “let’s focus on his message of tolerance, diversity and hope”

Despite a recent outbreak of violence and COVID-19 restrictions, Pope Francis will arrive in Iraq today for a tour of the country. In the past years, Cordaid’s Albert van Hal has been setting up a programme for mental health and psychosocial support in various parts of this country, that has been severely affected by conflict for decades. This is his reflection on the papal visit and what it means for Iraq.

“Many have used the term historic to describe this visit. This time it is not an exaggeration. The Iraqis I have spoken to in recent days are absolutely over the moon about it.

A fascinating country

Iraq is just as complex as it is fascinating. Come to think of it, there must be a strong link between the two. It is home to many religions and many ethnic backgrounds. Unfortunately, it is also home to many conflicts, with or without the involvement of foreign parties.

And let’s not forget, Abraham – who is seen as the father of Christians, Jews and Muslims – is from Ur, now a famous archaeological site in Iraq. Pope Francis will attend an interreligious meeting in Ur on Saturday.

Recent wars have caused death and displacement among many groups of people in Iraq. The Christian population went from an estimated 1.5 million to about 300.000 in the last two decades, although reliable statistics are hard to come by in Iraq. Pope Francis’ visit to important landmarks of Iraq’s Christian history, is an incredible boost to their morale.

Qaraqosh

One of those places is the city of Qaraqosh, which I visited several times. After the ISIS occupation and the following liberation, Qaraqosh was a ghost town. It was deserted, apart from a bunch of soldiers guarding the churches.

I vividly remember entering the demolished Church of the Immaculate Conception, where the soldiers offered me a cup of tea. When I came back to Qaraqosh a few years later, the city was inhabited again and very much alive.

Pope Francis Iraq
Cordaid programme manager Albert van Hal in the devastated city of Sinjar, Iraq.

 

It is impossible to find the right words to do justice to the history of all the different communities in Iraq. But it is clear that each one of them has suffered tremendously under the burden of recent Iraqi history. Now they are asking for recognition for their past and for a safer future.

Beauty in diversity

However complicated, the beauty of Iraq lies in its diversity. By visiting various regions and engaging in a conversation with representatives of different groups, Pope Francis is strongly underlining this. He is emphasising the importance of dialogue, respect, and tolerance for each other. It sounds obvious, but at the same time, it is neglected and forgotten, continuously.

“COVID-19 is not going to stop them from experiencing and enjoying this historic event to the fullest. Iraq needs this visit.”

I have seen critical questions going around too. Is Pope Francis taking enough time to meet representatives of all religious groups? Why come now, while there is a spike in coronavirus infections?

A Christian friend in Qaraqosh told me that the city has taken many measures to make the visit on Saturday to the Church of the Immaculate Conception as safe as possible. This is Iraq. COVID-19 is just one of the many crises the population has had to endure in the past decades. It is not going to stop them from experiencing and enjoying this historic event to the fullest. Iraq needs this visit.

Maybe the Pope’s already quite dense programme of the coming days could have been extended a bit, to meet more representatives of religious and ethnic groups. But let’s focus on his message of tolerance, diversity and hope.

The emotions behind faith

At Cordaid, this is what drives us. We want to maintain that diversity, respect it and even promote it. Cordaid’s own Catholic identity helps us connect with people from all religions. We understand the emotions behind faith, and therefore we can speak the same language. But first and foremost, we work for everybody, regardless of belief, background, and position in society.

The accumulation of violence in Iraq over decades means that every new conflict plants the seed for the next one. It is terribly difficult to find an answer to breaking this cycle of violence. But we need to make sure that everybody in Iraq can make a contribution to a better future. We need to support all groups, so they are heard and represented by the different levels of the Iraqi state and by organisations like Cordaid. If we can achieve that, there is hope.”

-> Read this statement by several faith-based organisations in Iraq about the papal visit

-> Read more about Cordaid’s work in Iraq