Amjad, an Iraqi artist with the NGO Imprint of Hope, paints a mural of Pope Francis © Ameer Al Mohammedaw
Muslims against Christians, Sunnis against Shiites, Kurds against Arabs – Pope Francis visits Iraq this week, a conflict-ridden country. At least he can count on sympathy in the Islamic world.
In the midst of a pandemic, Pope Francis takes on one of the world’s most difficult countries in crisis. From Friday to Monday, he will meet with politicians and religious leaders in Iraq, celebrate religious services, pray for peace and reconciliation. Security in violence-ravaged country is enormous.
Above all, Francis wants to encourage the Christian minority and put the brakes on their exodus. Of the once approximately one million Christians, more than two-thirds have fled Islamist terror or been driven out by IS since 2003, as have Yazidis. On his trip, the pope wants to make a special commitment to interreligious dialogue between Muslims and Christians.
First pontiff in Iraq
In the Islamic world, Francis is seen as a credible bridge builder. After relations between the Church and Islam were severed under his predecessor Benedict XVI. After the war had cooled considerably, the Argentinean put the ie at the top of his agenda. The preliminary highlight of the rapprochement policy was the meeting with the Grand Sheikh of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, Ahmad al-Tayyeb, in Abu Dhabi in February 2019, where both signed the "Document on the Brotherhood of All People for Peaceful Coexistence in the World".
At the time, it was the first visit by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula, and now Francis is the first pontiff to travel to Iraq, a country of the utmost importance in Islamic history. As early as 636, four years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Arab Muslims conquered the territories north of the Persian Gulf. The later foundation Baghdad became the pulsating capital of the Abbasid caliphate and stands until today for the "golden age of Islam. Theology and science flourished in Iraq, shaping the religious life of traditional Islam to this day.
The split between Sunnis and Shiites
Above all, however, Mesopotamia is the scene of the disastrous split between Sunnis and Shiites. The latter recognize only Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali and his descendants, the imams, as the rightful successors of the Prophet. In 680, the dispute escalated into a bloody battle near the Iraqi city of Karbala and the beheading of the third Imam Hussein by the Sunnis. To this day, distrust and enmity often prevail between the two denominations.
Although Shiites make up only 10 to 15 percent of all Muslims worldwide, they are the clear majority in Iraq, accounting for about two-thirds of the population. Nevertheless, political power lay in Sunni hands for centuries. Whether under Ottoman rule or British control after World War I, Sunnis have always dominated the government and army and used it to keep the Shiites down. On top of that, the arbitrary border demarcation of the British included the Kurdish areas in the north. Although Sunni, Kurds have never seen themselves as an integral part of majority Arab Iraq.
Christians in Iraq
Dictator Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party were particularly brutal against both Kurds and Shiites. Only after his fall in 2003 did the latter take over leadership in Iraq for the first time. But the horrors of the ensuing civil war and Sunni terrorist attacks tended to increase the hatred between the denominations.
Meanwhile, Christians and Yazidis, who had been relatively protected under Saddam, became victims of Islamist fanatics and criminal gangs alike. Several found protection in the now autonomous Kurdish regions, and even more chose exile. Even if IS can be considered defeated and some Christians have returned, there is little hope that Christianity in Iraq will ever regain its former vitality.
Meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
The most important voice of reconciliation is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Pope Francis will meet him in the holy city of Najaf. Already, the meeting between the head of the church and the highly respected Shiite cleric is seen as a powerful symbol of dialogue between Christians and Muslims, similar to the Pope’s meeting with Sunni Grand Sheikh al-Tayyeb two years ago. On the same day, Francis will address an interfaith meeting in the Plains of Ur.
Whether his appeal for peace and tolerance at the cradle of human civilization can help bridge divides and persuade Christians to stay is more than uncertain. Iraqi society remains deeply divided, while education and prosperity, the basis for social stability, take pandemic steps backward.