Pope Francis in Mesopotamia

A book review

By Andrea Trentini

A book review by Andrea Trentini

The Holy Father’s visit to Iraq had a historical value that cannot be limited to the enthusiasm of the novelty or even to the breath of hope for the future that it brought to the Middle East. This work by our friend prof. Saad Salloum responds precisely to the need to recognise complexity, an indispensable step for understanding events in the interconnected and stratified global world. Most of all, Iraq has been the scene of events and the cradle of numerous civilizations that have inhabited it, leaving a deep impression on the social and even geographical fabric of the country and its inhabitants, as Salloum himself recounted in his previous book on Minorities in Iraq. This new publication offers us an analysis with the great gift of historical depth and a competent knowledge of the Christian and especially Catholic reality, in Iraq but above all in the European and international context, such as it is not easy to find for an Arabic-speaking audience. The author manages to skilfully, easily frame the journey of Pope Francis within the teaching of the Catholic Church in the 1900s in the face of the new problems posed by the new nations born after independence, the introduction of democracy and the crisis of cohabitation. His analysis captures both the features of continuity with the previous papacies and the elements of innovation, outlining some of his decisions in the origin and cultural formation of Francis.

The trip to Iraq is an expression of the extroversion movement of the Catholic Church. Pope Paul the 6th, in his speech at the UN assembly in 1965, presented the Church as “expert in humanity”. The Church in the time of Pope Francis refuses to remain withdrawn on its own problems and regains the ambition to speak to the world, albeit sometimes in a condition of minority and suffering as in the Middle East. The author is careful to grasp in the papal journey not only the novelty and the message, but also the careful analysis of the world and its proposal for the future. It is the search for a third way – which the author defines here as “post-secular” – for the presence of the Christian minority and cohabitation in the country, as pope Francis testified from the beginning of the journey in his meeting with the authorities, based on common guarantees valid for everyone. The other moments – the stops in Najaf, in Ur, in Mosul, in the plain of Nineveh – in addition to obviously having an independent value, were also building blocks aimed at laying solid foundations and strengthening the construction of coexistence on which the Pope has chosen to invest. The Pope’s message was a broad proposal, open to all Iraqis, to rethink their country on new foundations. In a broader sense, it meant showing that the proposal that he offered the world in his document “All brothers” could be practised seriously: coexistence is possible even in a tormented context full of tragic memories such as Iraq.

I personally saw the long-standing enthusiasm of many Iraqis of different faiths and denominations, during and after Pope’s visit. They felt this old man could understand their weariness, acting as an interpreter of their deep desire of change for the better and of getting out of the endless spiral of violence, while showing Iraq’s best face, Iraq as the Iraqis would it be, with all their traditions and beauty. The Shia felt finally liberated by the political image of their faith spread since 1979, as well as the Christians finally had the feeling of being fully citizens of the country, in the words of those who attended it – and I know everyone who was there has a myriad of similar examples to quote and feelings to share.

It is necessary to be able to grasp the depth of the religious spirit that animated the entire visit, without however denying its great political force – and the author was careful to note the various international and national implications, both in the political and religious spheres. But here politics was lived in the highest sense of the term, that is, a lofty idea at the service of society, of the common sense of We. For the well-known sociologist Baumann, the whole of human history has been an expansion of this We, which today would have reached the stage where it is necessary to abolish the opposition with Them in order not to sink into war. The Pope has chosen to put this vision of unity and peace rooted in the Gospel into practice before the eyes of the world in the very place where, in the eyes of many observers, this appeared most difficult, displacing not only Iraqis and Christians but the whole world.

Pope Francis did not have a particular personal or academic knowledge of the Muslim world previously. He gradually built this relationship with the Muslim world passing through various moments, the most important of which was perhaps the Abu Dhabi meeting in 2019 as the author notes. But the Pope also had many seemingly minor moments with gestures of affection for Muslims in difficulty, such as in prison visits on Holy Thursday or towards migrants, spread by mass media up to the Muslim societies. The construction of a personal relationship – such as mutual respect and admiration with the Supreme Marjaa Sistani – becomes with Pope Francis a functional element for the construction of an identity of dialogue: in a world that loves to personalize relationships between leaderships, becomes a new paradigm of the relationship between institutional faiths, as noted in Italy by the great historian of the contemporary Church, Andrea Riccardi. Today the historical meeting in Najaf is calling the hawza to move out beyond its traditional borders: in the last decade, some pioneering Catholic-Shia meetings have been held between catholic intellectuals and scholars of the Iraqi hawza, but time has come for it to become a wider friendship on the example of their two religious leaders.

We could identify sympathy – etimologically meaning in most European languages “feeling in togetherness with your neighbour” – as the main quality characterising all the events which happened in Iraq. The meeting in Ur meant founding this sympathy and this good will on a shared religious basis in what the Catholic world calls the “Spirit of Assisi”, from the initiative of the Prayer for Peace of Assisi that the author recalls many times in the book, noticing its role in preparing future meetings. It means the spirit of cooperation among religious leaders for peace in the world initiated by the historic initiative held in city of Saint Francis by Pope John Paul II in 1986 and continued with fidelity and courage by the Community of Sant’Egidio until today. It is worth noting that representatives of the Najaf hawza seminary have regularly attended these meetings for over ten years now: in the last two events held in Rome in 2021 and 2022, they were seated on the stage just next to the Pope for the final ceremony.

The testimony of forgiveness, proposed as models in the visit in the Nineveh plain, have been a great Christian example of reconciliation. It also wanted to show the added value of Christians in every society and at the same time showed Christians themselves a way, that is, to be a peacemaker where they live and above all in fragmented societies and polarized like those of the Middle East.

The Pope amazed the world by showing the power of dialogue with respect to the ineffectiveness of violence and war, which in the last twenty years has opened up conflicts and left them unresolved, taking up in this an important teaching against war developed by the Catholic Church over the last century. What he himself explains in his programmatic document “The joy of the Gospel” is realized, where he defines “time superior to space”: that is, it is not a question of occupying spaces of power but of initiating processes that can change things over time, even in an unpredictable way, even if we will not be there anymore to see such results. This has been Pope’s legacy in the Land of Two Rivers.

Further background articles on the topic