In my last post, we looked at the visit of Pope Francis to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. As profoundly significant and important as the visit was, it was not the main reason for the pope’s trip, which was intended primarily to strengthen and encourage the Christians of Iraq.
Just before the pope’s trip, Michael J.L. La Civita posed the question in this blog post, “Who are the Christians of Iraq?” He answered by citing four main groups. Two of them are Catholic: Chaldean and Syriac Catholic. Two are not: Church of the East and Syriac Orthodox.
Before Cyril and Methodius had evangelized the Slavs in the ninth century, there were Church of the East bishops in China and Tibet. The history of Christianity, too frequently, has been a history of internecine conflict and division between members of the same church. While not in the mainstream of the intra-church conflicts of the West, the Christians of Mesopotamia were not spared that odd Christian propensity toward division and schism.
Much later in their histories, members of the Church of the East and the Syriac Orthodox Church sought communion with the Church of Rome. There were many reasons, from theological to political, for these decisions. What they all had in common, however, is that they divided churches into different groups, resulting in the Chaldean Church (Catholic) and the Church of the East (non-Catholic) and the Orthodox and Catholic Syriac churches. In almost all instances, these factions, though almost identical, were divided — often bitterly so.
The modern era with the ecumenical movement has seen some improvement in the relationship between the four churches, as well as with Armenians who are a much smaller minority. However, memories in the Middle East have a disappointingly long shelf life; insults and injuries are not quickly forgotten, to say nothing of forgiven.
Tragically one of the things that brought Christians closer together in Iraq and Syria was ISIS. In their savage persecution of Christians, the ISIS fanatics cared little for the theological, cultural and historical differences between Catholics and non-Catholics. To ISIS, they were all infidels to be driven out, converted or killed. This made Christians realize they had more in common than our squabbles allowed us to recognize. In almost exactly the same way, all Christians in Iraq realized they were “in the same boat” and that boat was in trouble.
When we humans suffer, we often turn in on ourselves and our own sufferings and fail to see the sufferings of others. There is also what I call the “Martha Principle.” In Luke 10:41 Jesus says, “Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things.” In a world beset with so many troubles, even the Catholic churches in Iraq can be forgiven for focusing in on their own problems.
All of which brings us back to the recent papal trip.
The bishop of Rome, the successor of Peter, is often referred to as the source of unity between Christians. Whether this statement is totally justified historically or not, it is clearly a role that Francis takes very seriously.
Pope Francis was invited to Iraq by Louis Raphaël I Sako, patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, a cardinal and head of the Chaldean Catholic Church. Chaldean Catholics are also by far the largest Christian group in Iraq. Patriarch Sako accompanied the pope in his visits to southern and northern Iraq. The patriarch was present at the visit to Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and the interfaith encounter in Ur. He was also present when the pope visited the Christians in the north of Iraq in Erbil, Qaraqosh and Mosul.
However, the pope was careful during his trip to include other Christians. In Baghdad, for example, he held a prayer service in the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Deliverance. On 5 March in a prayer service at which he and Syriac Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan presided, Francis recalled the 31 October 2010 massacre in which terrorists killed 58 people and wounded 78 more. Francis was clearly and painfully aware that suffering was not the property of any one community. They all suffered — Chaldean and Church of the East, Catholic and Orthodox Syriac.
As a result, Francis brought a message of consolation, hope and fraternity to all believers in Iraq — Shiite and Sunni, but most especially among all Christians. His presence and message also strengthened the unity between all Christians in Mesopotamia.