Bergoglio’s trip to Iraq was met with unanimous approval. Both for the courage to visit a country far from being pacified and which has been the scene of bloody conflicts for decades, and for the hope that where politics has not managed to offer a solution, religion will.
Certainly, the symbolic value of this visit is enormous, not only for Christians and Catholics like the Chaldeans, but also for Muslims—and this purpose, as well as interreligious dialogue, was certainly served by his meeting with Ayatollah al-Sistani.
It was a meeting of high value, given that the Shiite leader does not easily make himself available. But it may have aroused some discontent in Iran, where the meeting with Ali al-Sistani could be seen as an inappropriate recognition of importance to the detriment of the supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
However, the Pope’s trip was carefully prepared, and not only for security reasons. And perhaps the work of the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, Louis Sako, in preparing for the Pope’s visit and more, has not been emphasized enough. Bergoglio was unanimously welcomed (or nearly so), and this was due to the attitude of the Chaldean church and its leadership.
I met Louis Sako in 2003 when he was a priest in Mosul, and I and a journalist from Famiglia Cristiana were invited for breakfast. From the very beginning, he was a precious guide to penetrate the unstable Iraqi context, before the beginning of the war. This was also because his work was not only concerned with the Christians, but was rooted in the reality of the city.
He was used to traveling to Italy, and during my captivity he visited my family, accompanied by Don Renato Sacco, who was also a frequent visitor to Iraq. On my return to Iraq, we met again thanks to a minister of the Kurdish government. Sako, who in the meantime had become bishop of Kirkuk, once again wanted me at a table of high prelates for a traditional meal featuring masguf (carp).
It was not easy to cross the city, divided as it was between Kurdish, Arab and mixed areas, where the Christians, already victims of persecution, lived. However, among the bishop’s guards and the visitors, there was a climate of tolerance that was already unusual in those times.
And when one of the diners had to leave, it was to participate in a TV debate with Muslim representatives in order to plead for peace. It has been a difficult road: Christians in Iraq numbered a million and a half at the beginning of 2003, and now there are about 300,000 left.
Will Pope Francis be able to heal the wounds between ethnic-confessional affiliations, with their extreme consequences that have bloodied Iraq and beyond? Perhaps we should remember the beginning and the causes of this spiral of violence that has led to the “ethnicization” of the country. Before the U.S. invasion in 2003, a secular dictator had guaranteed coexistence, and there was no persecution of Christians: Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds lived together and married each other. One of Saddam’s foreign ministers was Tareq Aziz, a Chaldean Christian.
Of course, it was a dictatorship, and like all dictatorships, it was right to fight it—but the invasion of the country—on the basis of fake news, no less—was not and could not be the solution. Bergoglio’s visit to Iraq and his version of the Abrahamic Pact—as some call it, citing his visit to Ur, the homeland of the father of the monotheistic religions—is already a success, if we might imagine it replacing the one signed by Israel with some Arab countries. But it is based on a faith that religions draw upon, and unfortunately religion also inspires the worst enemies of peace and coexistence, such as the Islamic State, which has not yet resigned itself to defeat.