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Embrace Diversity: Central Message of Pope Francis’ Visit to Iraq

Jacob Peenikaparambil Jacob Peenikaparambil
15 Mar 2021

The message that reverberated in all the meetings of Pope Francis during his four-day historic whirlwind tour of Iraq was a plea to embrace diversity. According to the media reports, the content of all speeches delivered by the Pope was coexistence, forgiveness and peace, and he made a fervent appeal to all to embrace diversity as the most appropriate means to restore peace in Iraq. The message delivered by Pope Francis in Iraq is not only relevant to the people of Iraq but also to all people of the world, particularly to India, as India is one of the most diverse countries of the world with the followers of eight religions. 

The main purpose of Pope’s visit was to facilitate reconciliation in the war ravaged Iraq and boost the sagging morale of the dwindling Christian community. The Christian population which was 1.5 million prior to the American invasion in 2003 is reduced to 2, 50,000 at the time of Pope’s visit. Iraq suffered enormously during the invasion by the US and later by the extremists of the Islamic State (IS). In spite of the unprecedented security threat and the fear of the spread of Coronavirus Pope Francis took the risk of visiting Iraq because he was concerned about the suffering, anxiety and insecurity of the people, especially the minorities. Pope Francis is convinced that the security and wellbeing of the minorities is possible only in an atmosphere of accepting diversity and coexistence. 

The most significant event during Pope’s visit was the historic meeting with the Shiite spiritual leader. At Najaf in the south of Iraq, the Pope held a face-to-face meeting with powerful Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who is the spiritual leader of millions of Shiite Muslims not only in Iraq but also in other parts of the world. This meeting delivered a powerful message of peaceful coexistence and the right of Iraqi Christians to be treated on an equal footing. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said religious authorities have a role in protecting Iraq’s Christians, and that Christians should live in peace and enjoy the same rights as other Iraqis.

Equally important was the inter-religious meeting organized in the plains of Ur which is thought to be the birthplace of Abraham, the biblical patriarch revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Prominent religious leaders of Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and Mandaeans took part in this unusual gathering. The joint appearance by the representatives from across Iraq’s sectarian spectrum was something extraordinary. 

Pope Francis used this opportunity to deliver his message of coexistence and respect for other faiths directly to the religious leaders. “From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters,” he said. “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion” he asserted.  

In his address to the religious leaders Pope Francis reminded them about the conditions needed for peace. The pope said there could never be peace as long as Iraqis viewed people of different faiths as the “other”. The other perquisites for peace according to Pope Francis, are going beyond oneself to the other, liberating oneself from the “idolatry of money” and consumerism, justice that ensures equity and advancement for all, and extending a hand to other peoples.  He said that the journey to peace begins “from the decision not to have enemies” and anyone who believes in God, has no enemies to fight. He appealed to them to turn the instruments of hatred into the instruments of peace. 

Before concluding his address Pope stressed the urgency of teaching the youth fraternity, the theme of his latest encyclical. “This is a real emergency; it will be the most effective vaccine for a future of peace. For, you, dear young people, are our present and our future!”, said Pope Francis. In his address the Pope appreciated the Muslim youth volunteers of Mosul, who helped to repair churches and monasteries, “building fraternal friendships on the rubble of hatred”. 

On March 7, the third day of his visit, Pope Francis visited the ruins of Mosul and a Christian community damaged by the Islamic State group. After meeting with Muslim and Christian residents in a destroyed portion of Mosul he exclaimed, “How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed.”

While addressing Christians in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in the town of Qaraqosh, the Pope appreciated them for their courage and determination. “Love is our strength, the source of strength for those of our brothers and sisters who here too have suffered prejudice, indignities, mistreatment and persecutions for the name of Jesus,” the pope said. Pope Francis tried to instil hope in the demoralized Christians. "Today, however, we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war." 

He encouraged them to stay and not to run away. Referring to the episode of Peter at Gethsemane he said, “Yet neither flight nor the sword achieved anything.” Even after the defeat of the Islamic State in December 2017, many of Iraq’s Christians haven’t found their homeland livable. They have either not returned home or continued to leave the country. Against this backdrop the Pope appealed to the Christians not to leave the country. 

From day one of his visit till he left Iraq, Pope was reiterating the need for coexistence, cooperation and respect for all groups of people while condemning terrorism and violence in the name of religion. While addressing Iraqi President Barham Salih and other officials and diplomats at the Presidential Palace on the first day of his visit, Pope Francis said, “May there be an end to acts of violence and extremism, factions and intolerance! May room be made for all those citizens who seek to cooperate in building up this country through dialogue and through frank, sincere and constructive discussion!” “May no one be considered a second-class citizen,” he told the authorities. The Pope also appreciated the religious and cultural diversity of Iraq. “The religious, cultural and ethnic diversity that has been a hallmark of Iraqi society for millennia is a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to be eliminated,” he said.

Lessons for Indian Christians  

Some of the issues raised by Pope Francis during his visit to Iraq may appear to be Iraq specific, but they are applicable to many countries in the world at varying degrees, including India. They are food for thought to the Indian Christians.

Religion based discrimination and hatred is the most prominent among the issues that Pope Francis wanted to bring to the attention of Iraqi authorities. Large scale violence that resulted in huge loss to the life and property of Christians and other religious minorities, and their en masse migration to other countries was caused by hatred emanating from religious fundamentalism of the IS. The terrorism of Islamic State is rooted in religious fundamentalism. The violence perpetrated on the religious minorities in India, particularly the Muslims, with the patronage of the state agencies is the result of the hate ideology of Hindutva. Many studies have brought to light how this ideology was responsible for the communal riots in East Delhi. An article under the title, “The Ideological Strategy behind Delhi Riots,” by Deepak Sethi in WIRE on 7 March has analysed how the Sangh Parivar planned the strategy for triggering violence in view of polarizing the Hindus.     

It seems that the Christian Churches in India are not fully aware of the strategies of the Hindutva forces. It is very unfortunate that some Christian leaders are supporting the false narrative of “Love Jihad” which is an invention of perverted brains and minds. The Christian Churches in India have to be shrewd enough to discern the baits thrown at them by the Hindutva groups. As Pope Francis passionately championed inter-faith harmony and collaboration during his visit to Iraq, the Christian Churches in India have to work relentlessly for building harmonious relationship among the followers of different faiths. This is nothing but an emergency, a must and not an option. They should not become pawns in the hands of the communal forces. 

Pope Francis during his visit to Iraq fervently appealed to the authorities and the people to embrace diversity as a bulwark against religious intolerance and fundamentalism. Acceptance, appreciation and celebration of diversity in religion, culture and language has been the heritage of India for millennia. The Hindutva forces are bent upon destroying it. That is why U P Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said on March 8, that secularism was the biggest threat to India’s tradition getting recognition on the global stage. This is a totally unwarranted statement on the part of a Chief Minister who is holding a constitutional post. Secularism in the sense of celebrating diversity is one of the core values of Indian constitution. He has violated the oath he has made in the name of the constitution. 

If the Christians have to live in India with freedom and dignity, the only way is to safeguard pluralism and the constitution of India. In the absence of secularism/pluralism they will be treated as Rohingyas in Myanmar. Christians in India should be generous and open to learn about other religions and appreciate the noble teachings found in them. Inter faith dialogue, inter-religious prayer gatherings and inter-faith collaboration in solving the problems of the people should be the hallmark of their approach in India. This is the best way to confront the Hindutva forces. 

Pope Francis emphasized the role of Youth in rebuilding Iraq based on coexistence, forgiveness and peace. Lakhs of young people are studying in the educational institutions run by the Christian Churches. The ministry of education provides a wonderful opportunity to influence not only the young people but also their families, and most of them are Hindus. The Christian Churches have to ask themselves a crucial question. Have they succeeded in instilling in the youth the values of the Indian constitution, particularly pluralism? Could they prevent the youth studying in their institutions from being brainwashed with exclusivist hate ideologies? 

Young people like Safoora Zargar a student activist, Devangana Kalita a founding member of Pinjara Tod, Disha Ravi young climate activist and Nodeep Kaur a labour rights activist give hope to Indian democracy based on harmony and peace in the midst of fascist forces making all efforts to kill pluralist democracy of India and destroy inter-faith harmony. 

Let the Christians in India take inspiration from Pope Francis and become champions of diversity, coexistence, forgiveness and peace in building a harmonious and prosperous India.  

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