Pope Francis's visit is a blessing Iraq's Christians desperately need.
The faith's presence in the country dates to the first century AD. Its members are hugely diverse and most belong to the religion's most ancient sects. Their distinct liturgical languages, the unique architecture and art of their churches and the fact that Jesus was born in the region, make the Middle East the most important territory in the history of the faith.
But its future is under threat, particularly in Iraq. Before the war of 2003, the nation's community numbered around 2 million people, representing close to 10 per cent of the population. Now, an estimated 400,000 remain. Today, the country's religious minorities are morbidly aware of their status, not primarily as Iraqi citizens, but as Iraqi minorities.
The plight of Christians in the country mirrors a wider trauma that all in the nation currently endure – regardless of their faith – after years of divisive foreign interference, war, terrorism, corruption, militia rule and social alienation. Pope Francis said from the very beginning that his trip is a gesture of solidarity with all Iraqis.
It is also part of his ongoing determination to rebuild the lives of religious minorities in the region. An early step in this mission came in Abu Dhabi in February 2019, when Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayeb, Grand Imam of Cairo's Al Azhar Mosque, signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, a joint statement facilitated by the UAE that called for religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence.
Yesterday, Pope Francis built on this spirit when he met Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric, followed by a trip to the ancient city of Ur, the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, the progenitor of the three major Abrahamic religions. Representatives of Iraq's Yazidi and Sabean communities, both non-Abrahamic, were also in attendance. Even with current numbers painting a bleak picture for religious minorities in the Middle East, we should remember that for centuries the region has been home to the world's most diverse religious landscape. Those who think that tolerance is impossible here should remember this unique accolade.
Pope Francis's journey has been risky. Security provided by Iraq's government was tight, but only recently were there rocket attacks on Iraqi military bases and institutions. Furthermore, the lingering danger of Covid-19 is ever-present. There is an important lesson in the Pope's determination to press on. Many summarise his papacy with his early injunction that the Catholic church should "go out into the peripheries", rather than remain stuck in a culture of institutional introspection. This historic trip, despite the risks, lives up to the maxim.
It is a lead we should all follow as we take our first steps out of the cloistered lives the pandemic has imposed on us for over a year. In this sense, his trip is not just a blessing for Iraq, but to the world.