A guide prepared by Oasis to understand the ecclesial, interreligious and socio-political dimensions of Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:03:40

It was John Paul II’s ardent desire for the Great Jubilee, it had been Benedict XVI’s wish, and now it will become reality with Francis. His upcoming journey to Iraq from 5 through 8 March—the first such trip since the outbreak of the pandemic—again puts the periphery at centre stage.


Surely, the journey is not devoid of risks, as the very recent attacks in Erbil have shown. But Francis clarified his perspective on this issue as early as 2015, when he chose to inaugurate the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy in Bangui, the capital of civil war-torn Central African Republic, specifying that he would go there “even by parachute.” There is no doubt, either, that the Pope enters a very complex reality, from a religious as well as an ethnic, linguistic, and political point of view. After all, there is a reason that the Book of Genesis locates the end of mankind’s mythical pre-Flood undifferentiated unity at Babel in Mesopotamia, where divisions between peoples and languages began and, consequently, politics.


There are three main axes around which this journey seems to revolve: the encounter with the Iraqi Christian community; dialogue with Islam, especially Shi’i Islam; and a response to the political crisis into which Iraq has been plunged for decades. To help its readers understand these dimensions, Oasis has produced this special dossier, drawing upon numerous articles that we have published over the last years, and further enriched by an interview with Jawad al-Khoei, general secretary of the al-Khoei Institute in Najaf.


Oriental Christians and Inter-religious Co-existence


First of all, who are the Christians that the Pope will meet in the land of the two rivers? Like elsewhere in the Middle East, the Catholic Church in Iraq is structured in several rites, a peculiarity which results from a complex history that we summarise with a brief guide. Today, most Iraqi Catholics belong to the Chaldean (Eastern Syriac), Syro-Catholic (Western Syriac), and Latin communities. In his article, His Eminence Cardinal Sako details the vicissitudes of the Chaldean Church, of which he has been Patriarch since 2013. This Church is the largest branch of the historic Church of the East, whose roots go back to the first Christian century and which experienced an extraordinary missionary flowering in the Middle Ages spreading as far as China. Later on, the Mongol Conquests reduced it to Upper Mesopotamia and, in particular, the Nineveh plains, which the Pope is expected to visit on March 7. Victims of the first genocide of the twentieth century, the now forgotten Sayfo, the Syriac and Chaldean communities were targeted by ISIS in the terrible years of the ‘caliphate.’ Maria Laura Conte gathered some of these stories in a report written from the midst of the storm.


It is well-known that ISIS, after religiously cleansing the region, poured out its fury upon the monuments which testified to the existence of authentic ‘Christian-Muslim symbiosis’ in Mosul: this fact adds even more value to the extraordinary photos taken by Amir Harrak, which document a now largely lost heritage. If the process of reconstruction of the buildings is underway, it is much more difficult to rebuild people and heal the wounds and scars from the latest genocide. This is the subject of a lively intervention from the Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul (article in French), for whom the priority in the Nineveh plains must be to preserve human beings and their culture at the same time. But this cannot happen without forgiveness, as the Iraqi scholar Amal Marogy recounts, drawing upon her family memories, because “the path of reparative justice is the Biblical option par excellence” and it involves all Christians without distinction. In fact, this “ecumenism of blood,” to use an expression that Pope Francis cherishes, is fundamental for advancing along the ecumenical path with the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the evangelical communities. Martyrdom will also be a significant theme from the very beginning of the apostolic journey: the first day will end with a moment of prayer at the Syro-Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, which was the setting of savage slaughter committed by al-Qaeda in 2010, a reminder that the plights of jihadism and extremism preceded the advent of ISIS. The 48 Christians killed during that attack, among them an unborn baby and a three-month infant, were proclaimed servants of God in October 2020 after the conclusion of the diocesan stage in their canonization process.


Approaching Shi‘a Islam


Another high point in the Pope’s journey will be the meeting with Ayatollah al-Sistani on 6 March in the holy city of Najaf, which is the burial place of ‘Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, whom Shi’a revere as their first imam. A brief rundown outlines the main differences between Sunnis and Shi‘a, the two confessions to which the overwhelming majority of Muslims subscribe. In short, their dispute revolves around the issue of authority: not only who is entitled to exert authority (whether ‘Ali and his descendants or a caliph chosen by the community), but also, and more profoundly, what it means to be authority. In this regard, an anthology of texts taken from the most ancient collection of Shi’i hadīth, the Kāfī of al-Kulaynī (864-941), will allow us to understand better the figure of the Imam and his centrality to Shi’i thought and spirituality. And yet, for Iraqi Shi’a, as well as for Iranian and Lebanese ones, the visible chain of the imams was interrupted in 874, when the twelfth successor of Muhammad went into occultation. His role was gradually taken over by religious scholars (‘the clergy’), in a process that is masterfully expounded upon by Rainer Brunner. Unlike in Iran, Ayatollah al-Sistani, the leader of the largely informal marja‘iyya of Najaf, opposes the direct involvement of religious scholars in politics, preferring to maintain an impartial profile.


By this choice the school of Najaf, one of the leading theological centres in the Shi’i world whose history is detailed by Alessandro Cancian, steered away from the revolutionary option that Khomeini embraced in Iran. If Khomeinist ideology can be interpreted as a reactivation of the ancient notion of jihad, which is obtained at the expense of the ‘eschatological gap’ created by the disappearance of the Imam, it is exactly this ‘eschatological gap’ that, in our view, can safeguard an authentic religious experience from complete politicisation. Without forgetting the significant Sunni presence (amounting to 40% of the population), it is clear that the most relevant event during the Pope’s visit—from an Islamic-Christian perspective—will be the meeting with Sistani, also because of the absence of a Sunni figure of similar stature.


A Never-ending Crisis


Both the encounter with the local church and the dialogue with the Islamic authorities will take place within a tragic context. After the bloody decades of Saddam Hussein’s rule, which were marked by a semi-permanent state of war and the US invasion in 2003, Iraq has not yet been able to regain its stability. The country has remained religiously and ethnically fragmented (Sunnis vs. Shi’a and Arabs vs. Kurds) under an uncomfortable “condominium regime” maintained by the most improbable partners, the United States and Iran. Renowned historian Pierre-Jean Luizard explains how modern Iraq was indeed born as a ‘State against its society.’


In reality, there is no structural reason why this country, which boasts some of the largest oil reserves in the world, cannot recover from this seemingly unstoppable decline, both at a human and environmental level, which has recently stirred up new waves of revolutionary protests in another Tahrir Square of the Arab world. Demonstrators have been silenced by Covid for the moment, but it is an easy bet to predict that a new outburst of protests against corruption and the lack of perspectives will erupt as soon as it becomes possible again, although it remains difficult to articulate an alternative political project. The article by Riccardo Redaelli, who boasts long in-field experience in Iraq, denounces the imperial hubris that pushed George Bush to a war where “everything that could have gone wrong went wrong.” Ibrahim al-Marashi calls into question the notion of an ‘Iraqi Sunnistan,’ which is construed on the erroneous assumption that religious fault lines are a primordial and constant element of Iraqi history. Andrea Plebani, on the other hand, goes back to al-Sistani’s centrality (article in Italian) from a political point of view, exposing the political uncertainties related to the issue of succession, which is set to be posed in the coming years.


The Friend of God


In sum, the problems that await Pope Francis are simply enormous, and some of them, especially those pertaining to the political realm, do not even fall under direct ecclesial competence. The more closely you look at them, the more insurmountable they appear. It is therefore useful to go back to the origin of the historical flow that, millennia after millennia, has come down to the 266th successor of Saint Peter.


It was in Iraq, in Ur of the Chaldeans, that God chose a ‘wandering Aramean’ (Deuteronomy 26:5), Abraham, for a seemingly incomprehensible project. He made him leave his city in the footsteps of his father Terah and move to Harran, in Northern Mesopotamia. There, many years later, God revealed Himself to Abraham, asking him to abandon his land once again. It is the first chapter in the history of salvation. Who would have bet, according to human standards, on this old Bedouin chief, aged and without children? Yet today Christians, Jews, and Muslims all honour him as ‘Friend of God,’ a title found—uniquely—in the Old Testament (2 Chronicles 20:7), the New Testament (James 2:23) and the Qur’an (4:125). It is to Abraham, who was able to “hope against all hope” (Romans 4:18), that we have to turn to help us understand the ultimate reasons for this journey.




1.     Waiting for the Visit


“You Are all Brothers:” Pope Francis’s Journey to Iraq, Martino Diez

“The Pope is not Just the Leader of Catholics but Also an Icon of Peace”, interview with Jawad al-Khoei


2.     Middle Eastern Christians and Interreligious Coexistence


The Church of the East: Two Thousand Years of Martyrdom and Mission, H.E. Card. Louis Raphaël Sako

Christians in the Middle East: A Guide, Martino Diez

The Christian-Muslim Symbiosis of Mosul and its End, Amir Harrak

Free, Therefore Intolerable. Away With the Christians in Iraq!, Maria Laura Conte

« Nous avons sauvé les êtres humains et leur culture », H.E. Mons. Najib Mikhail Moussa

Memory, Hope, Forgiveness: Middle Eastern Christian’s Response to Persecution, Amal E. Marogy


3.     Getting to Know Shi‘a Islam


Sunnis and Shiites: Their Differences and the Origins of an Ancient Divide, Martino Diez

The Imam as Divide Proof, texts by al-Kulaynī 

How the Shi‘ite Clergy Entered Politics, Rainer Brunner

Past and Present in Shi‘ite Religious Schools, Alessandro Cancian

Shi‘te Jihad: A Ceasefire until the Imam’s Return, Mathieu Terrier


4.     The Political Crisis


Iraq: State Against Society, Pierre-Jean Luizard

The Price of Imperial Hubris, Riccardo Redaelli

Does an Iraqi “Sunnistan” Really Exist?, Ibrahim al-Marashi

La centralità del Grande Ayatollah ‘Ali al-Sistani nel sistema iracheno, Andrea Plebani


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation