His Holiness Pope Francis the Prophetic voice in the world; “Prepare the way for the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3) and be brothers in humanity carries projects of love, forgiveness and dialogue in his suitcase once again as he makes his way to Iraq with the certainty of a good shepherd telling the doubtful: “I want to be near the tormented…”
The Pope’s visit to Mesopotamia and the land of Abraham from March 5 to 8 bears great hope for an East burdened with grief, filled with conflicts and wars, and promises that the visit will make a change in Iraq.
His Beatitude Patriarch of Babylon for the Chaldeans, Cardinal Mar Louis Raphael Sako, Head of the Middle East Council of Churches for the Catholic family, confirmed the visit in an exclusive interview with the team of the Communication and Public Relations Department of the Council.
The Cardinal of love, forgiveness and dialogue highlighted the effect of the Pope's historic visit on Christians as well as Muslims throughout the East, ending his speech with a promise to generations: "As for us, we are staying here until the end."
Your Beatitude, in your opinion, how does the visit of His Holiness Pope Francis to Iraq affect the Catholic Church in the Middle East in particular, and the rest of the churches in it in general?
Pope Francis' visit to the Iraqi people is special. It is addressed to all the people of the region having suffered and still suffering from conflicts, struggles and challenges on every level. The message carried by the Pope do not only concern the Church and the Christians, but all people, especially since he had said many times: “we are all brothers”, in the letter he released on fraternity, or in the document on Human Fraternity he signed with His Eminence Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayyeb in Abu Dhabi.
The Pope’s first concern is to open humanity’s eyes to the great challenges and conflicts. Visiting Iraq was much needed. This country has suffered for 20 years from conflicts, extremism culture, endless crises and struggles related to ISIS and al-Qaeda, as well as sectarian mentality, quotas, corruption and statehood ... As a shepherd and a leader of humanity, the Pope wants to visit Iraq in difficult times to stand by the hurt. He said: "I want to be there for the tormented and help them feel better."
The visit is indeed to Iraq, but its ripples reach the devastated Syria, a Lebanon experiencing an existential crisis, Yemen and other countries. It is a message of peace, for without peace and stability there is no life. We must love one another as brothers. The Pope visits the land of Abraham that we shared with Muslims and Jews while believing in one God. Hence, we must persevere in love without crossing one another, and eliminating all factors of hatred, hostility and violence.
Pope Francis also wanted us to respect life and the environment. Life is a gift from God, and it is shameful for anyone to harm others and consider them enemies, especially when the other person is not.
Do you think this visit with the message of peace it carries can be an incentive for Christians to hold on to their presence in this East despite the prices they still pay every day? Does the visit encourage displaced Iraqi Christians to return to their country?
Pope Francis will visit Christian places that suffered and experienced displacement, such as Mosul, still until this day a disaster city similar to Hiroshima. The Pope will visit four damaged churches and a number of mosques... Extremism and terrorism are the path of ruin and death. If we want to live in safety and dignity, we must help each other and join hands to build a better future.
The Pope is also heading to the Nineveh Plain, where his people were displaced from the city of Qaraqosh that has a majority of Syriac Catholics among its residents, about 24,000 people according to Bishop Boutros Moussa. As for Chaldean and Syriac Orthodox, they are 2,000 residents.
Pope Francis cannot visit all areas in the Nineveh Plain, but he invites Christians to hold on to their land and history to be able to live safely with others and cooperate for a better, more peaceful and stable future. He also addresses politicians, in my opinion, urging them to work for peace and stability, achieve reforms, get rid of class mentality, think about the people and prioritize the general national interest over self or group interests.
As for encouraging Christians who left several years ago to return, this is not the job of Pope Francis. It is the government's mission to secure appropriate conditions and guarantee safety and stability, as well as the right of the citizen no matter their social class... Every Christian, Muslim or others must feel that Iraq is their home. Then the Iraqis can return to their country and invest in it as well ... The Pope cannot bring Christians back, but the most important thing is the message that he carries like other prophets did. I hope Iraqis and neighboring countries respond to the Pope’s call. Isaiah the Prophet said, “Come, go and spread the word…” Today the Pope calls for us Lebanese, Syrians, Yemenis, and the whole world, calling for an end to wars, the use of weapons, and work for peace and a better world.
The visit was subjected to criticism in this critical time Iraq is going through with the outbreak of the Coronavirus, the deteriorating economic situation and the security turmoil, so why do you insist on doing it in these difficult circumstances?
We encouraged the Pope to go through with this visit, but the final decision was in his hands. He is looking forward for it because the circumstances require his presence among the people, his brothers. He feels that he is everyone’s missionary and he is not here for a particular group. He’s here to tell Christians who have suffered that they are not left behind and forgotten, the Church is by their side, and he is present among them, so be encouraged and hopeful.
I think of it as a good opportunity, as the visit is pastoral and spiritual. And I urge Christians, especially those criticizing the visit, not to take preemptive negative stances, because the Pope cannot meet all their demands. It would be impossible. But the Pope is a father, a shepherd, a leader and a charismatic leader, and we must listen to his call. One word can incite, but it can also revive and create among Easterners a common good will to join hands and make an effort to change, and here lies the goal of this visit. Pope Francis is not trying to solve the problems of the Church, Muslims and the country. He is pointing us towards the path of light, we need to open our eyes and see it, and otherwise we would be walking towards our doom.
Are you optimistic about the positive reactions of non-Christian leaderships towards this visit? Do you believe in the possibility of establishing a deep dialogue and reinforcing the true intentions of building peace in Iraq?
The Pope is no ordinary man, he is a leading international ecumenical figure and his words are influential. During my meetings with the President, the Prime Minister, Shiite and Sunni religious leaderships and other minorities, I sensed an unusual enthusiasm to receive the Pope. I also felt that this visit would change Iraq. I also noticed everyone’s good will, or at least from what they expressed.
Could you brief us on the preparations for the historic visit? Moreover, is there any fear for the Pope's security?
I do not think there is anything to fear about the Pope's security, especially since everyone is working to ensure his safety. I haven’t heard any criticism of the visit, only welcoming words. He is determined to come and we hope to avoid any unpleasant surprises that might occur. Some Muslims have even prepared welcoming songs. For several weeks now, we have been raising our prayers every Sunday for the Pope's safety and the success of the visit.
Preparations are still going as the government has provided all the needed requirements such as security measures, protection, transportation, and airplane. Pope Francis insisted on taking an Iraqi plane, and this means a lot to us. Religious leaderships such as Al-Najaf Al-Sharif ... are also participating in the preparations.
Upon his arrival at the airport, he will be received by the Prime Minister and led to the Republican Palace to be received by the President, where 150 religious, social and political personalities await him. After the President’s welcoming word, the Pope will give a speech addressing the leaderships forming the Iraqi mosaic. Then he would meet the Catholic clergy in Baghdad and give them a speech as well.
On the second day, he will head to Al-Najaf Al-Sharif to meet with His Eminence Ali Al-Sistani, who is a prominent Shiite leader, especially since Al-Najaf is a holy city for our Shiite brothers. Just as Pope Francis met Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayyib in Abu Dhabi, he also wants to meet the Iraqi leadership, the Shiite Ayatollah, to broadcast Christian-Muslim integration. The meeting’s headline is fraternity, even if no signature is obtained on a document or a paper.
From Al-Najaf, he will head towards the land of Abraham where he will participate with the religious leaderships, minority officials and many personalities in a joint Christian and Islamic prayer. The Pope will listen to various testimonies from Muslims and Christians, then, give a speech and return to Baghdad. As for the evening, he would preside over the Divine Liturgy in the Chaldean cathedral, and for the first time in history, the Pope prays with a Chaldean rite. We commend this celebration to express the importance of the Eastern Churches, as the Pope is not only a Latin Church leader; he is the leader of the whole Church. We translated his part of the Liturgy into Italian. As for us, we participate in Chaldean, Syriac and Arabic.
The next day, Sunday, he would head to Erbil and meet with the civil regional government, and then to the old city of Mosul, still in bad shape to this day and with a number of churches and mosques that have been bombed and demolished. He would give a speech and listen to many testimonies before he moves to Qaraqosh, Baghdad, to pray the Hail Mary. Many speeches would be given, including the one of His Beatitude Ignatius Youssef Younan. The Pope then returns to Erbil, to the Chaldean Patriarchal Priestly Institution. In the evening, the Holy Mass is celebrated in a stadium near the airport with the attendance of more than 10,000 people, noting that Kurdistan is safe region where lives a Christian majority, like Ankawa region for example... Finally, the Pope would head back to Baghdad and return to Rome on Monday morning.
Cardinal, are there any special preparations for the youth movements?
There will be no special meetings for the youth; there will be public meetings only due to the limited time and the Coronavirus. We cannot give the youth an evening of chant, for example, or a recital. It is difficult because of Corona Pandemic and the curfew in Baghdad that makes it difficult for them to move around. However, this will certainly not affect people’s participation who registered to meet the Pope, as we have provided lists of the participants’ names, and people will have their IDs checked.
Of course, people will go out to the airport, and we have prepared special flags and hats for them that have the Pope's slogan "We are all brothers" with the map of Iraq, the two rivers and Iraq Al-Nakhil. The palm tree is like the cedar of Lebanon, this palm is strong and historic, with a dove holding an olive branch symbolizing the Pope, the Pope’s image and T-shirts and medals distributed to the people during the welcoming of the Pope.
Will Christian leaderships in the Middle East participate?
We sent invitations to all Catholic Patriarchs, but it is difficult to invite the other religious leaders because the invitation should be sent through the Vatican. I sent a message to all the patriarchs, but the quick visit and the constant moving between regions made it impossible for them to participate. The visit will not only be limited to Baghdad, as happened in Lebanon, Cairo or Amman, he will travel quickly with an entourage of 60 to 70 people in a private military plane. Only Patriarch Mar Ignatius Youssef Younan will attend since he has a parish here.
However, the Pope will meet all the Orthodox and Evangelical churches in Iraq during the festive mass. I think they will also participate in the Presidential Palace meeting and in Ur, where we invited them.
What about Coronavirus precautions? Were any measures taken?
We shared special instructions for Masses first and distributed chairs according to numbers, respecting social distancing standards. Masks and sterilization are mandatory, and no one is allowed to approach the Pope. We put barriers protecting the Pope in a way no one could push through them and because people are emotional. In the churchyard, the same procedures will be followed and there will be sterilization stations.
In his visit to Lebanon, Pope John Paul II said: "Lebanon is not just a country but a message", this slogan was spread onto the world. With the visit of Pope Francis, what do you expect him to say about Iraq?
He will definitely not say that Iraq is a message, and the Lebanese people did not live up to the message, which was a disappointment for the entire Middle East! Lebanon was an example of coexistence, respect and safety... What has Lebanon become?! With all my heart, I wish for Lebanon to recover. As orientalists, Lebanon strengthens us with its openness, its culture, coexistence, and its freedom.
I think the Pope will talk about that the region needs most from peace to stability, human fraternity and religious dialogues… It is not acceptable for people to fight under the name of religion or cult. Religion is love, grace, forgiveness… religion is a message, and humanity is its core. All that so people can live their humanity in freedom and dignity, environmentally and economically too, humanity is one family and the citizens of the same country are one family too.
I am Iraqi, meaning that I have to feel that Iraq is my home, same goes for the Lebanese or Syrian. But enough, people are tired, all these problems are killing them. Otherwise, why would they leave their countries? They lost hope! They leave their history behind and build a new history, a new culture, a new society... this is the kind of alienation no one wants to experience, but unfortunately people are forced to. As for us, we are staying until the end.