By Massimiliano Menichetti
“For us it was like waking up from a nightmare, we could not believe our eyes, the country really can get back on its feet.” These simple words summarize the hope of an entire people, the Iraqi people, who embraced the Pope from March 5 to 8. The image of this trip is captured in a snapshot in Mosul, the former capital of the so-called Islamic State, where the rubble is riddled with thousands of bullet holes; where seeing churches, houses, mosques destroyed and disfigured, one touches the violence of the fighting and the fury of man who destroys, tramples and annihilates his brother.
In that context, where horror seemed to prevail, the Pope was greeted by the singing of children waving olive branches. Others, not far from that encounter, were playing on a dirt road; asphalt remained only in the central streets. A little girl of four or five, dressed in a pink floral onesie and a pair of slippers, broke away from her group of companions and walked backwards. Unconsciously she stopped at the feet of a soldier. She looks at him, running her eyes over his entire figure, from his head to his feet.
The soldier – with the explosives on his waist, the helmet, the glasses to protect himself from the sun – bends his neck and meets the gaze of the little girl, her face dirty with earth like the rest of her body. Behind them, only the rubble of what used to be houses. Their eyes met despite those dark lenses, the man stroked the little girl on the head and lifted her up. She bursts into a smile, which he instantly reciprocates. In that image we can see the whole present and future of Iraq.
It was a memorable trip for Pope Francis, the first Pope to set foot in the land of Abraham. He encouraged and confirmed in the faith the Christian community, which together with Muslims and minorities such as the Yazidis, had experienced unspeakable suffering. It was a historic journey, bridging the gap with the Shiites after the efforts made with regard to the Sunnis in Abu Dhabi. It was historic on account of the welcome he received. But above all, it was a historic journey on account of the light of goodness and redemption he brought to a place devastated by war, violence and persecution perpetrated by ISIS, and now experiencing the scourges of poverty and the covid-19 pandemic.
What is particularly striking for someone visiting Iraq is the militarization: everywhere there were men in war gear, with thick bulletproof vests, belts with hand grenades, helmets with precision visors, and heavy weapons; along the road, tanks, armored cars, dozens of pick-up trucks with machine guns. Along the streets, just meters from those greeting the Pope with small flags and banners, unauthorized persons were held with hands behind their backs. In Baghdad, Nassirya, Ur, Mosul, Qaraqosh, Erbil, yellow and white Vatican flags were flown along walls topped with barbed wire.
In 2020, Iraq suffered approximately 1400 terrorist attacks; jobs are hard to find, and economic difficulties are a dramatic reality. But this is not the only reality in the country, even if this is the prevailing narrative – and often the only one. That narrative has no time for those who help others, for those who are committed to a reality of sharing and reconstruction.
The Pope’s journey has shed a different light on the country, and for the first time in decades, Iraq is being spoken of in positive terms: of welcome, of prospects, of the future. Christians and Muslims shared with Pope Francis not only their sufferings, but also their faith, their strength, their determination to remain, putting back on its feet a land that in the past was the cradle of ancient civilizations and an example of peaceful coexistence. Everyone listened to what they called “the great words” pronounced by a wise man.
Christians found themselves in prayer with the Successor of Peter, becoming a light for the whole world. A people grounded in reality, marked by stories of unspeakable suffering, who seek to overcome hatred and who will not accept becoming a repository of terror and fundamentalism. The Pope has brought a new ferment, in a reality accustomed to being depicted with dark and deadly colors. In Baghdad, where walls and armored perimeters protect the faithful in churches and mosques, semi-inhabited buildings alternate with festively lit squares and very poor neighborhoods, where architecture shows the discontinuity of styles and the signs of fighting.
Pope Francis remembered the martyrs, and, condemning all forms of fundamentalism, embraced the Christian community and all those who have suffered and continue to suffer. Despite the pandemic, entire families gathered behind the cordons and separations formed by armored vehicles, in order to see, if only for a moment, “the man of peace” who came from afar. In Ur of the Chaldeans, where the eagerly anticipated inter-religious meeting was held, the desert wind blew through protective nets placed along the route from the airport of Nassirya. Here, where tradition places the home of Abraham, with one of the largest Ziggurats in the world forming a backdrop, the stars of the sky were seen in broad daylight, the firmament that the Pope indicated as a compass, to walk on earth, to build paths of encounter, dialogue and peace.
Those present spoke of an “extraordinary, unimaginable encounter,” giving thanks to God in different languages. The joy and emotion of the community of Qaraqosh, where the majority of the inhabitants are Christians, was unforgettable. The Pope listened to accounts of the wounds and the testimony of faith of those who have seen children, wives, brothers killed by ISIS. He heard pleas for forgiveness for the killers. Here, on the faces of young and old, tears flowed when the Pope uttered the words, “You are not alone.”
Iraq’s greeting of hope for the Pope became visible in the large stadium in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, where so many Iraqis and Syrians found refuge. More than 10,000 people, coming from all parts of the country, prayed with Pope Francis, waiting in silence and recollection, with a new hope in their hearts: that a different Iraq is possible.