In a call for national cooperation and religious dialogue, Iraq Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi used the example of Pope Francis’s recently concluded first visit to Iraq, where he made many stops in his effort to engage with a declining Christian community. He cited the visit as one of “love and tolerance,” according to Reuters. Despite recent spikes in coronavirus cases within the country, the Pope said he “ultimately chose to put in God’s hands the fate of the Iraqis who gathered in crowded churches, often without masks, to see him.” The Iraq prime minister’s televised speech calling for national dialogue, according to Reuters, is meant to bridge divides between rival political groups amid chronic mismanagement and corruption.
The Pope met with both Christian and Muslim leaders in an effort to push for coexistence and peace. Reuters also notes many Iraqi residents believe that welcoming the Pope will help increase international trust in the prime minister, particularly in anticipation of more power to push back against Iran-backed militias. Despite a bombing in Baghdad and rocket attacks in the country that have occurred in preceding weeks, the Pope found importance in calling for dialogue in a region deeply connected to Judaic, Christian, and Muslim traditions, especially in the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, the alleged place where the patriarch Abraham was born.
The Iraq prime minister further mirrored the sentiment of coexistence by declaring March 6th a “National Day of Tolerance and Coexistence.” The Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani welcomed the Papal visit while also saying he acknowledging the Iraq prime minister’s declaration that followed his call for love and tolerance.
U.S. President Joe Biden praised the Iraqi government for accommodating the Papal visit and touts the occasion as a symbol of hope and tolerance. This also comes after Pope Francis held a Mass in front of 10,000 people in the Kurdish capital of Irbil. Iraqi Christians were able to witness a historic moment in the region’s history, as their jubilance in light of the Pope’s visit filled the spaces that were once occupied by the Islamic State militant group.
When Pope Francis toured Mosul this week, he was “waving at a handful of onlookers against the backdrop of buildings destroyed during the war against ISIS,” according to CNN. This moment represents the sizable significance of such a historic visit by the Pope, and Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi’s robust participation in spreading the message of “love and tolerance” is also worth praise, as well as active continuation. The Papal visit was a promotion of diversity, dialogue, and determination for a future of diminished violence, and the Pope made a brave decision by visiting the region given its instability as well as conservative Catholic criticism that this Christian-Muslim dialogue strays from Catholic doctrine, CNN notes.
However, the Pope has also taken coronavirus risks in his visit to the region, which saw recent spikes; events surrounding the Pope’s visit made social distancing far too difficult and masks were disregarded. Despite the momentous occasion, it must not be forgotten that the world is still undergoing a global health crisis and that people must continue to take basic precautionary measures to prevent more deaths and illnesses.
Iraq is home to one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, which is now a population that is suffering. According to the New York Times, adherents to the Christian faith have been cut by a third since the final years of Sadam Hussein’s rule. Pope Francis’s visit began with a meeting with Catholic clergy and seminarians in the Syrian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation, where 50 were killed in a 2010 attack by Al-Qaeda-linked militants. The Vatican used this symbolic religious history as a large precedent behind analyzing the recent Papal visit as something in which the benefits outweigh the risks, to which the jubilance of Iraqi Christians can attest to. The two previous Popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, intended to visit Iraq, but tensions and war prevented them from doing so.
The positive messaging and significance of Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi’s plea for tolerance and the Pope’s visit will hopefully strengthen the narrative of coexistence in a part of the world where tensions have been alarmingly high in recent decades. The push for religious liberty is a complicated and drawn out matter in Iraq, but the importance of speaking with communities that are facing disadvantages and need protection cannot be neglected. A commitment from all nations to engage in interfaith understanding will go a long way to ensuring the global security of those who are vulnerable to discrimination and violence.
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