In March 2021, Pope Francis made a notable visit to Iraq, during which he was moved to the “deepest part of his soul,” by the plight of Christians across the Nineveh Plain and the Greater Middle East. According to Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, it was “possibly the most significant trip of the pontificate.”
In light of the recent outbreak of fighting on the Nineveh Plain, which has already displaced thousands of Yazidi families, we reflect on the words of the Holy Father about the need for interfaith, as well as intercultural tolerance and peace.The Yazidi are a non-abrahamic minority which practices a distinct culture and religion in a land under majority Muslim governance. They, along with Christians, Shabak, and other religious minorities, have suffered greatly at the hands of extremist movements that have swept across the Plain.
This violence is reminiscent of the waves of violence that killed, disappeared, and displaced hundreds of thousands in Northern Iraq and Kuridstan in 2014. It is a sobering reminder that although many have returned to resume their lives, adversity continues. The Holy Father’s words served to provide hope that one day, if we are truly to look to the teachings of our faiths, and follow our consciences, peace might be attainable.
“This is true religiosity; to worship God and love our neighbor,” he addressed the crowds during his 2021 Iraq tour, “back to our origins, to the sources of God’s work, to the birth of our religions” to pray together for peace as children of Abraham, the prophet common to Muslims, Christians and Jews.”
Pope Francis spoke against the backdrop of a magnificent ziggurat in the ancient city of Ur. His Holiness traveled to the ruins, considered to be the birthplace of the biblical patriarch Abraham by Christians, Muslims, and Jews. He delivered his message on physical common ground shared by all three faiths, in a land which has faced wave after wave of sectarian bloodshed.
In an address, the Pope urged Iraq’s Muslim and Christian religious leaders to put aside their differences, work through past conflict, and work together for peace and unity for all.
“From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters,” he said. “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion.”
Blasphemy, particularly against Islam, is a dangerous accusation across the Middle East. Although Iraq has no law specifically punishing Christians or Yazidis for practicing their faith, many nations across the Middle East have imposed extreme punishments for perceived blasphemy, with harsh consequences for accusations of proselytizing or converting from Islam. And although there are no laws “on the books,” that has not stopped groups and governments from engaging in violence against those perceived as different.
The pope said there could never be peace as long as people across the Middle East viewed people of different faiths as the “other.”
“Peace does not demand winners or losers, but rather brothers and sisters who, for all the misunderstandings and hurts of the past, are journeying from conflict to unity,” he said.
Francis told faith leaders that it was fitting that they come together in Ur, “back to our origins, to the sources of God’s work, to the birth of our religions” to pray together for peace as children of Abraham, the prophet common to Muslims, Christians and Jews.”
Although Abraham is considered the father of Christians, Muslims and Jews, there was not a Jewish representative available to attend the event. Judaism in Iraq, once a sizable minority of about 150,000, is now a micro-minority, with the community that exists in single digits. By March 2021, the number of Jews living in Iraq had dwindled down to five people.
Life is difficult for ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq and in neighboring nations, with numbers dwindling every year.
In 2019, in an impassioned address in London, the Reverend Bashar Warda said Iraq’s Christians now faced extinction after 1,400 years of persecution. Since the US-led invasion toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, he said, the Christian community had dwindled by 83%, from around 1.5 million to just 250,000.
Similarly, in 2014, Yazidi leader Vian Dakhil warned: “Our entire religion is being wiped off the face of the earth.” According to the UN, around 5,000 Yazidi men were murdered and up to 7,000 Yazidi women and children were kidnapped. Thousands are still missing.
Both the UN and the European Parliament have described these events, as well as the persecution of neighboring Christians and other minorities indigenous to the Nineveh Plain, as genocide.
“We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion; indeed, we are called unambiguously to dispel all misunderstandings. Let us not allow the light of heaven to be overshadowed by the clouds of hatred! Dark clouds of terrorism, war and violence have gathered over this country. All its ethnic and religious communities have suffered,” the Pope continued.
“In particular, I would like to mention the Yazidi community, which has mourned the deaths of many men and witnessed thousands of women, girls and children kidnapped, sold as slaves, subjected to physical violence and forced conversions.
“Today, let us pray for those who have endured these sufferings, for those who are still dispersed and abducted, that they may soon return home. And let us pray that freedom of conscience and freedom of religion will everywhere be recognized and respected; these are fundamental rights, because they make us free to contemplate the heaven for which we were created.”
He went on to describe the journey of the prophet Abraham, and the lessons of unity and tolerance that his story can teach us. He ended his address with a call to tolerance:
“It was precisely through hospitality, a distinctive feature of these lands, that Abraham was visited by God and given the gift of a son, when it seemed that all hope was past (cf. Gen 18:1-10). Brothers and sisters of different religions, here we find ourselves at home, and from here, together, we wish to commit ourselves to fulfilling God’s dream that the human family may become hospitable and welcoming to all his children; that looking up to the same heaven, it will journey in peace on the same earth.”
We, like the Holy Father, wish for peace in Iraq and Kuridstan, and for the refugees of all conflicts to be able to return home and peacefully reestablish their lives. We know the aching of refugees for their homeland far too well. As an organization, we have worked with several minority communities across Iraq to help build brighter futures, including Yazidis.
American FRRME is deeply committed to interfaith unity, and is always ready and willing to help Iraqi refugees. Our mission is to initiate and foster long term self-sustaining programs and opportunities to help empower refugees and Internally Displaced Persons. Donations to American FRRME go to programs that will aid in the survival of families facing violence across the Middle East. The people of this region have suffered greatly during the bloodshed of the last century.
Please PRAY for the victims of violence in the Nineveh Plain. Pray for peace in the Middle East. Pray for the Yazidis, Shabak, and the Christian minority communities of the region, that they are able to heal and rebuild their lives in a brighter and more peaceful future.
We dream of a world where everyone may practice their culture and religion in peace, and truly wish to see that happen in Iraq. Pray for the widows, the orphans, and those who are losing their homes and their livelihoods. May the Lord restore peace and have his hand of protection over those fleeing violence, and may His children work to build a tolerant and unified future that allows all groups to live together in harmony.