A fearless pope makes history in Iraq

A fearless pope makes history in Iraq
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“It was an amazing visit.” That’s how Iraqi President Barham Salih summed up to me the historic visit of Pope FrancisPope FrancisCOVID faith: Are your religious views 'sincerely held'? Biden meets with leaders of Australia, Iraq before departing UNGA Pope says some critics wanted him to die in surgery MORE to Iraq. And President Salih was not exaggerating. It may be true that the pope leads no army, and his territorial domain is surrounded by the city of Rome. One could dismiss the pope as Joseph Stalin reportedly did at Yalta, by asking, “How many divisions does the pope have?” Yet popes have always wielded considerable influence well beyond the confines of the Vatican. Most recently it was Pope John Paul II who, together with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, is credited for accelerating the process that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union that the selfsame Stalin led for decades.

No previous pontiff ever set foot in the ancient land that until the 20th century was called Mesopotamia. Moreover, the pope’s visit came at a time when Iraq continues to be subjected to intense Iranian pressure, Turkish occupation, militia-stoked violence, the ember of ISIS, and uncertainty about the future of America’s troop presence. Indeed, only two weeks before his visit the violence once again had spread to Kurdistan, where 14 rockets were fired at the Kurdish capital of Erbil; three hit the American base at the airport, leaving an American contractor dead.  

Pope Francis easily could have canceled his trip at the last minute in light of the danger from an array of extremists. As an excuse, he could have claimed that traveling to a country that has seen a spike in coronavirus cases — with thousands recently infected and dozens dying — was simply unwise. He made no such claim and went ahead with what clearly was great personal risk.

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For his part, President Salih had been eager to bring the pope to Iraq, as he indicated to me when we last met prior to the pandemic’s shutdown of foreign travel. This was no small dream, and it bore multiple symbolic implications. To begin with, the pope would represent everything that radicals in Iraq detest. He would speak for an endangered Christian minority whose numbers continue to shrink. Indeed he would represent all minorities in Iraq who suffered under the heavy hand of ISIS or radical militias. 

At the same time, the pontiff’s visit would demonstrate how carefully Iraq is walking the fine line between Iran, its powerful neighbor to the east, and the United States and the West. Iraq also has to reckon with Turkey, which continues to occupy its territory. Moreover, Baghdad is uncertain about the Biden administration’s commitment to maintaining a robust American presence in the region, whether military, economic or diplomatic.

Yet beyond all of these considerations, there was one other that Salih wished to underscore. He wanted to demonstrate that Iraq was a far more tolerant society than the ravages of ISIS against Yazidis and so many others would have suggested. It might be added that as a Kurd who, like so many of his ethnic brothers and sisters, suffered mightily during Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule, Salih is especially committed to showing the world that Iraq’s minorities will be treated with the respect they deserve. 

The pope’s visit can only be called a smashing success. His six-city itinerary garnered the world’s attention. When he met with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Sh’ia majority, in Najaf, holy to Shi’a Muslims, he joined the ayatollah in making a forceful case for coexistence. And they demonstrated the importance they attach to respecting other religions: In conformity with widespread practice in the Middle East, Pope Francis removed his shoes before entering Sistani’s room. And Sistani, who normally greets visitors while seated, stood to welcome Francis.

The pope’s visits to Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city in the Nineveh Plains, where al Qaeda and then ISIS sought to wipe out the Christian community, and to Kurdistan, where many Christians had fled extremist depredations, reflected his determination to bolster the spirits of the endangered Chaldean community. At his visit to Mosul, once a major ISIS stronghold, Francis spoke out against extremism. And when he visited Ur, the Biblical home of Abraham, father of monotheism, the pope asserted, “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: They are betrayals of religion. … We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion.”

Stalin was neither the first nor would he be the last to question a pope’s power. But Francis has demonstrated that power need not be measured in military or economic terms alone. What he brought to Iraq was power of a very different sort — one of the spirit, one that offers hope to a land that continues to suffer from extremist violence and militia despoliation. And it is for that reason that President Salih rightly could conclude that the pontiff’s visit truly was “amazing.”

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.