ROME — Pope Francis touched down in Iraq Friday to begin a three-day visit with a focus on inter-religious harmony and peace.
In his first major address — delivered in a meeting with authorities, civil society, and the diplomatic corps — the pontiff underscored the need for cooperation and solidarity to overcome factional rivalries.
Iraq, he said, is “a cradle of civilization closely linked through the Patriarch Abraham and a number of the Prophets to the history of salvation and to the great religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.”
Greeting Catholics, members of other Christian Churches and Ecclesial Communities, Muslims, and members of other religious traditions, the pope asked God to grant the ability to “journey together as brothers and sisters in the firm conviction that authentic teachings of religions invite us to remain rooted in the values of peace, mutual understanding, human fraternity, and harmonious coexistence.”
Over the past several decades, Francis noted, “Iraq has suffered the disastrous effects of wars, the scourge of terrorism and sectarian conflicts often grounded in a fundamentalism incapable of accepting the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups, different ideas and cultures.”
These sectarian conflicts have brought with them “death, destruction, and ruin,” he said, and “the damage is so much deeper if we think of the heartbreak endured by so many individuals and communities, and wounds that will take years to heal.”
Among all those who have suffered, the pope held up the example of the Yazidis, “innocent victims of senseless and brutal atrocities, persecuted and killed for their religion, and whose very identity and survival was put at risk.”
“Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as members of the same human family, will we be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave to future generations a better, more just and more humane world,” he insisted.
As he has done on other occasions, the pope insisted that religion, by its very nature, must be at the service of peace and fraternity rather than conflict and strife.
“The name of God cannot be used to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism, and oppression,” he said. “On the contrary, God, who created human beings equal in dignity and rights, calls us to spread the values of love, good will, and concord.”
Iraq’s religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity is “a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to be eliminated,” Francis said. “Iraq today is called to show everyone, especially in the Middle East, that diversity, instead of giving rise to conflict, should lead to harmonious cooperation in the life of society.”
“May the clash of arms be silenced!” the pope intoned. “May their spread be curbed, here and everywhere! May partisan interests cease, those outside interests uninterested in the local population.”
“May the voice of builders and peacemakers find a hearing!” he continued. “The voice of the humble, the poor, the ordinary men and women who want to live, work and pray in peace.”
“May there be an end to acts of violence and extremism, factions, and intolerance!” he pleaded.
The peace and harmony so many desire will only be possible if everyone’s voice is heard, and if all are equally respected, the pope warned.
“Iraq has sought in these years to lay the foundations for a democratic society,” he said. “For this, it is essential to ensure the participation of all political, social, and religious groups and to guarantee the fundamental rights of all citizens. May no one be considered a second-class citizen.”
The pope also made an appeal on behalf of the community of Iraqi Christians, which has been decimated by ongoing conflicts and is now just a shadow of its former self.
“The age-old presence of Christians in this land, and their contributions to the life of the nation, constitute a rich heritage that they wish to continue to place at the service of all,” he said. “Their participation in public life, as citizens with full rights, freedoms, and responsibilities, will testify that a healthy pluralism of religious beliefs, ethnicities and cultures can contribute to the nation’s prosperity and harmony.”
For his part, the pope said he comes “as a penitent, asking forgiveness of heaven and my brothers and sisters for so much destruction and cruelty.”
“I come as a pilgrim of peace in the name of Christ, the Prince of Peace,” he said.