Pope Francis was determined to travel to Iraq this month despite security risks and a recent surge of COVID-19 cases in the country. When some advisers suggested he cancel, the pontiff threatened to fly commercial. Over the course of three days, Francis visited officials in Baghdad, prayed with Iraqi faith leaders in the ancient city of Ur in the south of the country, had an audience with the Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, and offered mass for 10,000 people in Iraqi Kurdistan in the north (where many of Iraq’s remaining Christians live).

A major theme of the visit was Francis’s grief for the plight of Iraqi Christians, who numbered about 1.5 million in 2003 and are now fewer than 300,000. Christians have lived in Iraq for far longer than they have lived in western Europe, but the community has experienced convulsion after convulsion following the U.S. invasion in 2003. Violence (including church bombings and kidnappings for ransom) had driven many Christians from the country by the time the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, appeared in 2014. The militant group further targeted religious minorities during its brief rule over stretches of northern Iraq. Many Iraqi Christians feel abandoned by their government in the wake of these ravages.

But in choosing the Middle Eastern country for his first excursion outside Italy since the beginning of the pandemic, the pope also had a more universal mission in mind. Cardinal Louis Sako, the patriarch of the Baghdad-based Chaldean Catholic Church, explained that Francis “insisted” on the journey because “he feels the pain of the people who are suffering”—a reference to all Iraqis, not just Christians. And as with all acts of papal diplomacy, the pope’s journey to Iraq was laden with symbolism. Francis has long stressed the importance of interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims. His meeting with the immensely influential Sistani epitomized this approach of comity and understanding, as well as Francis’s belief that the papacy, which initiated the First Crusade against the Holy Land nearly a millennium ago, must be used to bridge divides.

Francis journeyed to Iraq in the season of Lent not only as a pastor but as a penitent. His trip was an act of contrition—the most public and powerful one by a Western leader so far—for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and all the bloodshed and instability it unleashed.

BROTHERS WITHOUT BORDERS

While sequestered in the Vatican during the pandemic, Francis wrote Fratelli Tutti, or “Brothers All,” a wide-ranging encyclical on how dialogue can promote the peaceful coexistence of different cultures. It opens with the story of Francis of Assisi, the saint who, in 1219, traveled to Egypt during the conflagration of the Fifth Crusade to better understand the region’s Muslim leader, Sultan Malik al-Kamil. The pope named himself after the medieval saint and no doubt recalls this journey when undertaking his own trips to the Middle East.

Of course, Francis has no desire to reprise the zealous hostilities of that era. He has prioritized Christian-Muslim relations at the highest levels, aiming to undercut the nihilistic view that Christendom and Islam are locked in a primordial “clash of civilizations.” No comparable institution to the papacy exists in Islam, but certain religious leaders do enjoy great standing. The pope has developed a friendship with Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb, the grand imam of al Azhar mosque in Cairo and a leading figure within Sunni Islam. The two men signed a joint statement in Abu Dhabi in 2019 committing to a “culture of mutual respect” and declaring violence in the name of religion an abuse of God’s name. This statement also signaled a mending of fences of sorts. Tayyeb had fallen out with the Holy See during the tenure of Francis’s predecessor, Benedict, when the imam claimed that the former pope’s comments in 2011 about terrorist violence minimized the suffering of Muslims. Since his election in 2013, Francis has made good relations between the Vatican and al Azhar a priority.

Francis journeyed to Iraq not only as a pastor but as a penitent.

His meeting this March with the normally reclusive nonagenarian Sistani continued this practice of deepening ties with influential Muslim leaders. Since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, no religious leader has better modeled Francis’s ideal than Sistani, who holds great authority for Shiites in Iraq, Iran, and beyond. Sistani sought to guide Iraqis at key junctures in post-Saddam Iraq: he instructed everyone, including women, to participate in democratic elections in 2005 as a “religious duty,” inspiring mass participation; he issued a fatwa to rally Iraqis against ISIS in 2014, contributing to a successful counteroffensive; and he brought down a government considered particularly close to Tehran in 2019 by siding with anticorruption street protests. Sistani rarely invites public figures to see him; he has refused audiences with American officials since the 2003 invasion. Sako, the Chaldean cardinal, secured an invitation for Francis, and that promised meeting became a major motive for the pope’s journey to Iraq.

Limping through the alley leading to Sistani’s small, rented house, Francis certainly looked like a determined pilgrim. The Catholic Church has a long-standing dialogue with the Iranian Shiite religious establishment based in the city of Qom in Iran, but Najaf in Iraq is in truth the most sacred and influential Shiite center. Its view of the separation of mosque and state more closely resembles Catholic theology than does Iran’s theocratic model. Francis thanked Sistani for his help protecting Christians in Iraq; Sistani insisted that Iraqi Christians are citizens with “full constitutional rights.” Sistani’s statement after their meeting showed how closely aligned these two moral authorities are in calling for the rejection of violence and the “language of war” in favor of a focus on poverty, social justice, and human dignity. As they parted, the slender marja in black and the pontiff in white gripped each other’s arms. Through this encounter, Francis sought to offer an embrace to the wider Muslim world.   

SEEKING FORGIVENESS

The cordial meeting of two major religious leaders signaled to their followers the importance of mutual understanding and tolerance. But for Francis, coming to Iraq was also the means to service what he sees as a moral debt. The degradation, humiliation, and trauma Iraqis have experienced in recent decades require consolation. During Lent, a period of self-abnegation and introspection for Christians, the pope traveled, in his own words, as a “penitent pilgrim,” seeking forgiveness for the sins of those who brought ruin on Iraq.

The Vatican opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is well known that Pope John Paul II sent a personal delegation to plead with U.S. President George W. Bush to call off the attack. Vatican officials warned the president that military action would unleash extremism, instability, and the scapegoating of Christian communities. The Bush administration did not heed this advice, even as it sought religious sanction for the invasion.

In November 2002, four months before Operation Iraqi Freedom, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz gave Christian leaders a preview of their plans. They summoned a number of religious figures to the Pentagon for what was supposed to be a top secret briefing on Afghanistan. This was an unusual occasion, part of the Bush administration’s wider attempts to rally religious leaders to political causes. Among those clerics invited was the Episcopalian Bishop John Chane, who led the Washington National Cathedral at the time. When Rumsfeld appeared, it soon became clear that the briefing was not about Afghanistan but rather the administration’s plan to invade Iraq. Rumsfeld gave the religious leaders an overview of how the operation would play out, insisting that intensive precision bombing would not lead to great civilian casualties and that U.S. troops would be received as liberators. The defense secretary claimed that the invasion would set in motion the democratization of the region and create lasting stability. “I left that meeting knowing the decision had pretty much been made,” Chane told me. He was appalled. Others were silent, including a Catholic cardinal from Baltimore, and some, such as evangelical leader Chuck Colson, were enthusiastic. Francis is well aware that Western politicians have tried to enlist religious leaders to help rationalize war, especially in the case of Iraq, a co-optation he calls the “serious sin of hypocrisy.”

Children wait to greet Francis in Mosul, Iraq, March 2021
Children wait to greet Francis in Mosul, Iraq, March 2021
Yara Nardi / Reuters

The invasion did not have the results that Rumsfeld promised. Sectarian bloodshed followed, and instability led to the rise of a welter of militant groups, including ISIS. Iraq remains plagued by internecine violence and terrorism. In this light, the pope’s trip to Iraq was more than the visit of a Catholic spiritual leader to a predominantly Muslim country: Francis’s pilgrimage was a symbolic act of contrition for what remains one of the most destabilizing, destructive military adventures of the twenty-first century.

Speaking to officials and diplomats on the first day of his visit, the pontiff expressed remorse for the “death, destruction, and ruin” inflicted on Iraq for close to 20 years. He explained that he came “as a penitent, asking forgiveness from heaven and my brothers and sisters.” Although he did not explicitly blame other countries or forces by name, he specified the guilty as “those outside interests uninterested in the local population.” In the encyclical Fratelli Tutti, he is more direct, highlighting how geopolitical superpowers and transnational economic interests function to “divide and conquer” weaker, poorer parts of the world, indifferent to local culture, faith, or values. And last year in Bari, Italy, at a gathering of bishops discussing the Middle East, Francis lamented the brutality and horrific waste of war. “War, by allocating resources to the acquisition of weapons and military power, diverts those resources from vital social needs, such as the support of families, health care and education,” he said. “It is madness; it is madness to destroy houses, bridges, factories and hospitals, to kill people and annihilate resources, instead of building human and economic relationships. It is a kind of folly to which we cannot resign ourselves: war can never be considered normal.”

In this spirit, Francis convened an interfaith prayer service on March 6 near the dramatic ocher ziggurat of Ur. The site—the biblical birthplace of Abraham, the father of the three monotheistic religions—signifies a shared culture that transcends modern antagonisms, and it was a fitting place to plead for unity among believers of different faiths: “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion,” said Francis.

In 1985, Pope John Paul II asked for forgiveness for the colonial practice of slavery in the New World and for the transatlantic slave trade. Today, Pope Francis seeks to apply the sacrament of reconciliation not to historical transgressions but to contemporary problems, from the rejection of refugees in parts of Europe to the legacy of Western intervention in the Middle East. He journeyed to Iraq not just to encourage its people to reject hatred and unite across sectarian divides but to grant them the simple but powerful act of recognition, acknowledging the wrongs committed against them.

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