What’s in a papal visit?
Pope Francis’ recent visit to Iraq was very important for a number of reasons. At very least it was an expression of his and the Church’s solidarity with Iraqi Christians who in the last decade have experienced a heightened degree of persecution, mainly at the hands of the Islamic State militants.
Christians have lived in Iraq for almost the whole history of the faith. Although a minority (perhaps 3% of the country), they enjoyed protection under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. In the period after Saddam’s fall and particularly during the ISIS era, Christians experienced high levels of persecution (possibly because they had had privileges under Hussein, and during the ISIS crisis because they were Christians). They now number a few hundred thousand in Iraq.
But there is a deeper significance to the Pope’s visit.
Francis’ visit to Iraq should be understood as an extension of his earlier efforts to reach out to improve Christian-Muslim relations. In this he is building on a vision of interreligious dialogue and cooperation articulated in Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate (1965). Regarding Islam, the text noted common grounds between Christians and Muslims – monotheism (though understood differently), respect for Jesus and Mary (though, once again, interpreted differently) and similar understandings of moral concerns. Above all Nostra Aetate called for respect for each other’s faiths and religious tolerance.
This call was reiterated in Francis’ 2019 joint declaration with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar (in Egypt), in Abu Dhabi. In a world where religious intolerance has led to violence, they called for a different path. By going to Iraq, by speaking with Muslim leaders, Francis is extending his peace agenda. With el-Tayeb, he was speaking with one of the leading scholars of the Sunni branch of Islam. In Iraq, he has been talking to Shia Muslims.
Why does this matter?
Firstly, peace – but more than peace as an absence of war. It is also about trying to disconnect religion from violent politics. The dangerous reality is that in the post-Cold War world, religions have increasingly become motivating forces (if not sources) of political violence. It has often been a useful ‘cover’ for nationalist and populist politics. After all, what better ‘friend’ can an unscrupulous politician have than God?
Beyond that – and perhaps an agenda even more important when this present age of populist violence (hopefully) passes – is the need for a different approach to how people of different religions deal with each other. In the past, even when a dominant state religion did not persecute religious minorities, the mentality was always: We’re right (and going to Heaven) and the rest of you are wrong – and headed for Hell. A more tolerant attitude among Christians was to see other faiths as ‘echoes’ (however imperfect) of our own.
Today, and here I think is Francis’ agenda, one hopes to see God’s presence in other faiths on their own terms while seeking common themes on which to build interfaith cooperation.