It was an emotive moment as Pope Francis landed in Baghdad airport last Friday in the first papal visit to the land of Mesopotamia. The Pope and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi were beaming as they were met with traditional music and dance. A historic visit that many thought impossible was made possible after all. The burst of colour and music that received the Pope was so familiar to Iraqis, even if they hadn't enjoyed it in quite some time. For some Iraqis it was like blowing the dust off their country and all its vibrancy, buried under years of war and trauma. The joyous reception for the Pope was largely unexpected for most foreign observers. Images of Iraq have usually been of destruction, tension and pain. Women playing musical instruments, young dancers and smiling faces were all too rare a sight.
As the motorcade left Baghdad International Airport, Pope Francis kept waving from his armoured car, showing his appreciation for the crowds lined along the heavily secured road leading from the airport to Baghdad Palace, the main presidential palace, where he received an official welcome.
The defining line of Pope Francis's speech upon his arrival in Iraq was his call to "let the guns fall silent". That call, essentially to stop the warfare that continues to plague the country, resonated with many Iraqis. However, in the hall listening to Pope Francis were some of the very men responsible for not allowing the guns to fall silent or for healing to begin in the country. Rayan Al Kildani, an infamous militia leader, was among those attending, as were a number of other militia leaders. But for that brief moment, they were under one dome, seeing the potential of Iraq, if they would allow the guns to fall silent.
A small minority of extremists, such as those belonging to Kataib Hezbollah, publicly declared their rejection of the Pope’s visit. In a statement on the eve of his arrival, one of the leading voices of Kataib Hezbollah, Abu Ali Al Askari, denounced the visit and the specific call for unity among the followers of different religions. For militants, regardless of their sect, this visit threatened their ability to force reactionary and extremist views on the country. Seeing the ultimate Shia authority, Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, receiving the Pope frustrated militants whose dogma relies on division.
The most poignant moment of the Pope's visit was his praying for Mosul and victims of ISIS. Standing in the Church Square in the Old City, Pope Francis surveyed the extensive damage to the historic site, at times silent in contemplation. The beauty of the old city was brought out with traditional Maslawi folklore songs, sung by jubilant young Iraqis, with the words changed to welcome the papal guests. And while Pope Francis appealed for love and forgiveness to curb extremism, he also called for the curtailing of corruption. For, it is that corruption that has impeded the rebuilding of the city close to four years after it was liberated from ISIS. Social injustice has become a threat as challenging as terrorism.
The visit to Ur reminded much of the world of the forgotten fact that Iraq is the cradle of civilisation, as the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham. A site that should be receiving millions of tourists annually is cut off from the world, miles away the troubled city of Nasiriya where young activists have been killed and kidnapped systematically for months.
From Baghdad to Ur, to Najaf to Mosul, to Qaraqosh to Erbil, the Pope was received with joy. Millions of Iraqis, inside the country and abroad, were glued to their television screens following his every word. And while there was joy with each sound of ululation, there were tears. The joy of the visit was laced with the sense of loss and pain, of the knowledge that what Iraq witnessed during the Pope’s historic four-day visit was a passing moment, as the elements of corruption and militancy have become entrenched in the system and would probably dominate the near future.
"Iraq will always remain in my heart. I ask all of you, dear brothers and sisters, to work together, united for a future of peace and prosperity that leaves no one behind and discriminates against no one. I assure you of my prayers for this beloved country." With those words, Pope Francis left Iraq. Soon after the papal plane departed to Rome on Monday morning, Prime Minister Al Kadhimi issued a call for an open dialogue between the different factions. He has long advocated for an Iraq rich in its diversity and multitude of identities but united under the banner of a sovereign nation. "In the atmosphere of love and tolerance promoted by the visit of His Holiness the Pope to Iraq, we call today for a national dialogue as a pathway for achieving the aspirations of our people," Mr Al Kadhimi said. "We invite all political forces, young protesters and opponents of the government to be part of a responsible dialogue." The invitation is a sincere one but unlikely to bring about the desired outcome, as vested interests of political and militant forces appear too strong.
In his letter inviting the Pope to Iraq, dated June 19, 2019, and two years after the liberation from ISIS, Iraqi President Barham Salih said: "It is my sincere hope that your Holiness' trip will be a milestone in the healing process, and Iraq can once more be a peaceful land, where the mosaic of religions and faiths can live together in harmony again, as they did for millennia." That is the hope of all Iraqis. The Pope did his part, accepting the invitation and visiting Iraq in the most challenging of circumstances. Now Iraq's political leaders must do theirs.
Mina Al-Oraibi is editor-in-chief of The National