Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq: Lessons in religious tolerance, By Collins Ughalaa

Posted by News Express | 13 March 2021 | 610 times

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•Pope Francis in Iraq


Iraq which is identified variously in the Old Testament as Babylon (Jeremiah 50:1-46), Beth Arbel (Hosea 10:14), Beth-anath (Joshua 19:38; Judges 1:33) and Baal-shalisha (II Kings 4:42) is not a stable state, is not a Christian country. Ur and Nineveh are some of the Iraqi communities prominently mentioned in the Holy Bible. Iraq, as it were, enjoys early mention in the Bible.

For example, Moses writes about how a group of men who wanted to make a name for themselves attempted building a gigantic structure in the land of Shinar, called the Tower of Babel, after the deluge. Their plan was to make the structure reach the heavens. According to Genesis 11:1-9, the people said: “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly…Then they said, Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

Moses also wrote about Abraham, whom God called from Ur Kashdim, Mesopotamia, saying: “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3). The Holy Bible also talks about God’s concern and mercy for the inhabitants of Nineveh, for whom He sent Prophet Jonah to forewarn over his impending wrath.

It was this city that Prophet Jonah travelled to in the belly of a big fish, to preach to the inhabitants to turn their ways to God, else they perished. Jonah, from the Northern Kingdom of Israel, lived about the time of the 8th Century BCE. For some reasons, he did not want to travel to Nineveh but instead boarded a ship to Tarshish. Caught in a storm, he ordered the ship's crew to cast him overboard, where he was swallowed by a giant fish. He was in the belly of the fish for three days before the fish vomited him out onto the shore. He embarked on his preaching assignment and successfully convinced the entire city of Nineveh to repent. He waited outside the city in expectation of its destruction but God chose to forgive the people because they had repented.

Iraq has witnessed worse things since the time of Jonah. There is currently a dwindling Christian community in the country, from over 1.5 million Christians to about 250,000. According to records, Christianity berthed in Iraq in the 1st century. It was said that Thomas the Apostle and Mar Addai, also known as Thaddeus of Edessa, and his pupils - Aggai and Mari - brought Christianity in Iraq. Thomas and Thaddeus were two of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. Considered one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, the vast majority of Christians in Iraq are the indigenous Eastern Aramaic-speaking Assyrians who descended from ancient Assyria. They follow the Syriac Christian tradition, otherwise called Syrian Christian Tradition. The term can also refer to Aramaic Christianity in general, which comprises all Christian traditions that are based on liturgical uses of Aramaic Language.

 Greek, Latin and Aramaic or Classical Syriac were the most three important languages of the Early Church. Classic Syriac became a tool for the development of a separate Syriac form of Christianity, which thrived throughout the Near East and other parts of Asia during the late antiquity and the early medieval period. This gave rise to various liturgical and denominational traditions, known in the modern times by several churches that are continuing to uphold religious and cultural heritage of Syriac Christianity, comprising two liturgical traditions.

 First, the East Syriac rite whose main expression is the Holy Qurbana of Saints Addai and Mari, the Iraqi-based Chaldean Catholic Church, Assyrian Church of the East and Ancient Church of the East. Secondly, the Indian Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and Chaldean Syrian Church. The Chaldean Syrian Church later became a part of the Assyrian Church of the East. On the other hand, the West Syriac Rite, also called Antiochian Syriac rite or St James rite, which has the divine liturgy of St James as its anaphora, is that of the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Lebanon-based Maronite Church, the Syriac Catholic Church, and the Indian Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, Jacobite Syrian Christian Church (which is part of the Syriac Orthodox Church), Malankar Independent Syrian Church. 

 Modified or Protestant-influenced version of the West Syriac rite is used by the Reformed Eastern Malankara Mar Thomas Syrian Church and the more strongly Reformed St Thomas Evangelical Church of India. Syriac Christians of the Near-Eastern (the Semitic) origin use several terms for their self-identification, including Arameans, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Phoenicians and Syriacs. Each of those polysemic terms has a complex semantic identity. Ancient Arameans, ancient Assyrians, ancient Chaldeans and ancient Phoenicians indicate those Christians had direct connections with different Semitic peoples of the ancient Near East, whereas the term Syriacs originates from a very complex etymology of the term Syria. 

 The emergence of ISIS in 2013 birthed one of the darkest Christian histories in Iraq, as the terrorist group rapidly swept through Iraq's western region, forcing Christians to flee as a result of gruesome persecution, as they were to exterminate any person who did not believe in their Sunni sect of Islam. Thousands of Iraqi Christians fled to the nation’s capital where they found refuge and adequate housing. Many of them have chosen to make the capital their new permanent home, following the full defeat of ISIS by US forces.

Thousands of Christians have also fled to other parts of southern Iraq, such as the Shia-dominated city of Najaf, which housed thousands of Christians in holy Islamic shrines once they fled from ISIS. A large population of Christians in Iraq have, however, returned to their homes en masse following the defeat of ISIS.

With the experiences of Iraqi Christians and the rich history of the country regarding their encounters with God, especially as recorded in the Holy Bible, we can understand better when Pope Francis chose to visit Iraq on a three-day missionary journey, for the sake of the remaining 250,000 Christians in the country. The pope visited different places, including Mosul, where ISIS established its caliphate; Qaraqosh, an ancient town on the Nineveh that was devastated by ISIS’s genocidal onslaught; and Eril, where he saw the churches destroyed by ISIS and offered prayers for the Christians, the nation and the victims of the war at Hosh al-Bieaa, or “Church Square”, in Mosul’s old city. He urged the Christians to forgive the injustices meted out to them. 

Overall, we consider Pope Francis’ Iraqi visit not only a soothing balm and unifying platform for Iraq that was torn apart by civil unrest for close to twenty years, after the US-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein and sharply divided the country, forcing upheaval that has barely subsided. We consider the Pope’s message of forgiveness and unity a message that should have universal application, especially in Nigeria.

We recommend the pope’s message of religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue as medicine for Nigeria’s current malady. 

Furthermore, we consider the pope’s spectacular visit on Saturday to the Shia Islamic Cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the city of Najaf, in particular, as symbolic of religious tolerance and sacrifice needed for peaceful coexistence among people of diverse religious, cultural, social and economic backgrounds. The papal visit should teach political and religious leaders in Nigeria to put aside their religious and political differences in seeking genuine solutions for the troubles bedevilling the country.

In the coming days, therefore, we expect to see our political and religious leaders do more, shift grounds and make personal sacrifices to douse the growing tension in the country. With palpable fear across the country, leaders across the board should speak only soothing words and douse the embers of discord. Nigeria is the only country we call our own, and we owe her the duty to save her from falling over the cliff into a ditch.

•Collins Ughalaa KSC writes from Owerri. He can be reached via ughalaacollins@gmail.com

Source: News Express

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