by Luigi Sandri. Confronti Editorial Staff
On his pilgrimage to a country destroyed by decades of wars and violence, Francis tried to console every person who has suffered, inviting everyone and everyone to rebuild the country–largely Muslim–where the basis of coexistence is in fact citizenship, and not religion. His voyage was full of many rich moments: the denunciation of terrorism. A dialogue with al-Sistani, the Shiite Grand Ayatollah of Najaf. His invitation to Christians to not be discouraged. The interreligious meeting in Ur, the homeland of Abraham (excluding Jewish participation, however, at the hand of the government).
Four thousand years ago Abraham was guided by shimmering stars along his arduous journey. Will those same stars now guide his descendants, in the flesh and in faith, along the arduous road that leads to peace? This is the question–burdened by doubts and anxieties but also full of hope–which arises after the extraordinary journey from 5-8 March that Francis made to Iraq, bolstered by the inevitable interfaith slogan: “You are all brothers.” His was a pilgrimage full of symbols, of complicated religious aspects, of tangled geopolitical knots, of apocalyptic legacies of very recent wars and violence; but also of impressive testimonies of forgiveness, the will to live, and resurrection.
The Meeting with al-Sistani, the Great Shiite Ayatollah
The day after his arrival, on Saturday May 6, pope Francis reached Najaf–two hundred kilometers south of Baghdad–for a private visit to Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, the ninety-year-old leader of the Iraqi Shiite community. Upon the arrival of his guest, al-Sistani stood up–which he usually does not do. From religious and political points of view, this was the summit of the papal journey.
Out of 1.5 billion Muslims in the world–mostly Sunnis—Shiites constitute about 15%. They are massively prevalent in Iran, and also represent a demographic majority of 65% in Iraq, where Sunnis amount to 30%. But between the Shiism of each country there is a very notable difference. In 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini from Tehran proclaimed an Islamic Republic, and therefore Iran has a theocratic character because the Great Ayatollah is the “supreme guide” of the country (Rahbar), in a religious and also political sense. The Iraqi Republic parliamentary does not formally grant authority to the Shiites. However, the Grand Ayatollah of Najaf has a great moral authority over the entire Muslim world because he is the keeper of the tomb of Ali (the husband of Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad), located in the great golden mosque of the city. Hence, he garners the respect of many Muslims, even non-Shiites, where—if they can—many of them want their grave in the very large local cemetery of Najaf.
Al-Sistani, in recent years, has opposed the rise of ISIS-Daesh, or the so-called Islamic State. Now, speaking with Francis, he reiterated that the faithful of all religions must be granted constitutionally-guaranteed rights in Iraq. On the meeting, which lasted forty-five minutes, a Vatican communiqué then specified that the Pope “underlined the importance of collaboration and friendship between religious communities, so that we can contribute to the good of Iraq, the region and the whole humanity.”
Furthermore, he thanked the Great Ayatollah “because, together with the Shiite community, in the face of the violence and great difficulties of recent years, he raised his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted, affirming the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people.” The pontiff later said, about al-Sistani: “I felt the duty, in this pilgrimage of faith and penance, to go and find a great, wise man—a man of God. It did me good for the soul, this meeting. It is a light.”
Regarding the reservations that some Catholic circles advance about his dialogue with Muslims, the Pope–speaking to journalists on the return flight –specified: “There are some criticisms: that the Pope is not courageous, he is unconscious, he is taking steps against Catholic doctrine, which is one step closer to heresy…. There are risks. But these decisions are always made in prayer, in dialogue, asking for advice, in reflection. They are not a whim, and they are also along the lines that the Council [Vatican II] instructed.”
However, regarding the Catholic-Muslim dialogue, there is a notable difference, at a high level, between that with the Sunnis and that with the Shiites. In fact, on February 4, 2019, in Abu Dhabi, pope Francis signed a substantive pact on “Human Brotherhood for World Peace and Common Coexistence” together with Ahamad al-Tayyib, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Cairo, the leading Sunni religious center. No documents, however, were signed in Najaf—not even a brief joint statement. Perhaps there will be one in the future, perhaps including other protagonists, if the meeting between the pope and al-Sistani bears the hoped-for results.
The Wound of Ur of the Chaldeans
Abraham, according to the Bible [Genesis, Chapters 11 and 12], was from Ur, a place not far from Najaf. Remarkable remains of the ancient settlement remain, which in the last century underwent profound restorations. Also restored was the Sumerian ziggurat, an imposing structure visible even from far away, and which demonstrates the one-time importance of that hub for caravans. There, according to the scriptural record, Abraham received the Lord’s order: “Go away from your country, to the country that I will show you.” Then, in the new land of Canaan, he would have two sons, Ishmael from the Egyptian slave Hagar, and Isaac from his wife Sarai. The Arabs proclaim themselves descendants of the first, the Jews of the second. For Christians, Abraham is a father in faith. Other religions also refer, in some way, to the patriarch.
The interreligious meeting between pope Francis and al-Sistani took place in Ur on March 6. After a reading from the book of Genesis and a passage from the Koran, and the testimonies of a Muslim and of a Sabean–Mandaean woman—who belongs to a monotheistic religion which partly refers to Gnostic dualism and partly to John the Baptist—the pope spoke: “Here, where Abraham our father lived, we seem to be returning home. Here God asked Abraham to look up to the sky and to count the stars there. In those stars he saw the promise of his offspring; he saw us. And today we, Jews, Christians and Muslims, together with our brothers and sisters of other religions, honor our father Abraham … From this spring of faith, we affirm that God is merciful and that the most blasphemous offense is to desecrate his name by hating his brother. Hostility, extremism and violence do not arise from a religious soul: they are betrayals of religion. And we believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion.”
Then, those present all together recited the Prayer of the Children of Abraham: “Almighty God, our Creator who loves the human family and all that your hands have done, we, sons and daughters of Abraham belonging to Judaism, to Christianity and to Islam, together with other believers and all people of good will, we thank you for having given us Abraham, the distinguished son of this noble and dear land, as a common father in the faith…. We thank you for his example of a man of faith who obeyed you to the end, leaving his family, his tribe and his homeland to go to a land he did not know. We thank you because, by blessing our father Abraham, you made him a blessing for all peoples … Open our hearts to mutual forgiveness and make us instruments of reconciliation, builders of a more just and fraternal society … Support our hands in the reconstruction of this country, and give us the necessary strength to help those who have had to leave their homes and lands to return safely and with dignity, and to start a new, peaceful and prosperous life.”
Throughout this highly symbolic and prayerful interreligious scene, however, there was a discord: there was no Jewish participant, at least on the visible, public level. Despite pressure from the Holy See, the Iraqi government had in fact opposed the idea, citing, as a reason, the lack of diplomatic relations between Iraq and Israel. But could we—at a religious, historical and symbolic level—ignore the indelible, millennial Jewish presence in the Mesopotamian affair, and also the “chronicle” of the last hundred years, which is intertwined with the birth of modern Iraq? After the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, the situation of Iraqi Jews—about 140 thousand—became increasingly harsh; they, “legally” plundered, finally had to flee. Today it is believed that only about a hundred remain in Iraq.
The Ancient Oriental Churches
The Christian population of Iraqi Kurdistan numbered 1.5 million until 2003, before the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, and eleven years before 5 July 2014, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was proclaimed “Caliph” of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS-Daesh) at the al-Nuri mosque in Mosul. Today, after the terrifying devastation caused by ISIS-Daesh, which Francis has seen with his own eyes, these Christian number three hundred thousand at most: many have been killed, many others have fled.
The pope met the heads of all the churches: not with only Chaldean Catholics; but also with the others. The meeting with Mar Gewargis III, catholicos and patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, was particularly important. This church, of apostolic origin, is heir to the sees of Seleucia and Ctesiphon (ancient cities south of Baghdad), and in the fifth century adopted the Christological theology of Nestorius—which was condemned by the Councils of Ephesus in 431). In fact, this church developed far from the power of Constantinople, and over the centuries she managed to create a series of dioceses along the Silk Road, reaching as far as China. By now this church has been gone for a millennium in that region. But the church also reached Malabar, the west coast of India, where it still exists today. Often persecuted, in the last century the believers emigrated heavily to the United States of America, where catholicos moved for several decades and are now trying to re-establish roots in Iraq. In 2018 pope Francis and Gewargis signed a joint Declaration in Rome reading, “Some of our differences in theological expressions are often complementary rather than conflicting.” With this, they expressed their hope of celebrating the Eucharist together.
Looking to the future, there are two hypotheses for Christians: could they concentrate on the plain of Nineveh; or to return—scattered—to their various areas of origin? However they develop their community, to all of them, pope Francis’s invitation is identical: forgive the offenses received; reach out to the most needy (he has repeatedly cited the tremendous violence with which ISIS-Daesh tried to eliminate the Yazidis). For the whole of Iraq—largely Muslim—the pope’s invitation was to re-build a country where the basis of everyone’s rights is citizenship, not religion (and indicated that the religion-violence relationship must be examined critically and more in-depth). He especially praised the women who, in these very difficult years, managed to defend life. He reiterated: “Fraternity is stronger than fratricide”; “Terrorism is against God’s plan.” Finally, to the international community, he issued a pressing invitation: “Silence the weapons”—cut off the weapons arriving from abroad! And silence whoever is supplying these arms, demanded pope Francis—these arms which have brought so much death and devastation to the country.
Will these words be accepted, and will the tangled religious and political knots of Iraq be resolved? The return to Ur begins now: there is a call to fulfill an “Abrahamic covenant” that honors and gives justice to every religion and to every people who refer to his heritage.