Why the Pope’s visit to Iraq is of symbolic importance

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Pope Francis’s trip to the Middle East has illustrated the drive for coexistence that is possible in the region.

During a visit to Iraq, the pope also sent a message to President Reuven Rivlin. “To his excellency Reuven Rivlin: Entering Israeli airspace on my apostolic journey to Iraq, I send warm greetings to you and the people of the nation, praying that almighty God will bless all with his gift of harmony and peace.”

The message to Israel coinciding with the historic visit to Iraq brings hope to the region. They are part of a larger process that is taking place here, as many countries see the birth of coexistence that is framed with peace deals such as the Abraham Accords.

This is not a coincidence but a very real feeling across many countries that decades of terrorism and extremism now should have no place in our societies. There is a thirst for a new era, and it can be seen particularly in the welcome the pope received in Iraq. It was not so long ago that churches were being targeted by jihadists in Iraq. These include churches where the pope prayed.

After the US invasion of 2003, the jihadists exploited divisions in society to target minorities. They have done the same all over the region, from attacks on churches in Egypt, to beheading Christians in Libya, to the genocide of Yazidis and attacks on churches in Sri Lanka and during Christian holidays in Pakistan. There is barely a country that has not been harmed by this violence.

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For years we were told that this was something we must get used to, that it was just part of living in a big city, that there will always be a few men who have some natural inclination to murder people for religious reasons.

However, we know that this is not the case, and in Israel we have fought against this extremism for decades. Brutal murders, such as the attack on a synagogue in Har Nof in 2014 and the stabbing of policemen on the Temple Mount in 2017, were once more common here. Like Iraq, we have worked hard to overcome this extremism. We have not let it change our society, and we have chosen the alternative of peace and coexistence.

The pope’s visit to Iraq is symbolic and important on numerous levels. It included not only meetings with faith leaders but also a visit to key areas, such as Ur, where Abraham, the shared father of monotheistic faiths, was born. It also included a visit to the Kurdistan region and the city of Mosul.

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The Kurdistan region has welcomed Jews and has been a center of coexistence in the region. The tomb of Nahum, a Jewish shrine that is a symbol of coexistence between Muslims and Christians, has been saved and rehabilitated in recent years in northern Iraq.

The meeting between the pope and Ayatollah Ali Sistani – one of the most influential Iraqi Shia clerics of Iranian origin in Iraq – is also an important symbol. For too long, sectarian extremism guided the relations between religions. Sistani, however, has been a voice of reason amid the rise of various Shi’ite militias in Iraq.

It should not be ignored that the pope landed in Erbil airport, which was threatened by these Iranian-backed militias just weeks ago. Can Iraq turn the page on these militias? That would require Herculean efforts by the government. However, it is clear that Iraqis prefer to move beyond the politics of the gun, which is the only politics that Iran offers the suffering Iraqis.

The pope’s visit could have included a visible Jewish presence. Jews lived in Iraq for thousands of years. The ethnic cleansing of Jews from Iraq and the way they have been written out of history is a blight. The Vatican wanted a Jewish delegation to attend the events, and Jews sought to attend the pope’s visit, but the Iraqi government did not facilitate their attendance. That shows that while Iraq is embracing diversity, it has yet to open the door on its own history and embrace the Jews, who were once a large population in the country.

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Nevertheless, we can learn much from the pope’s trip about what coexistence can do for this region.

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