Francis in Iraq – the day 0

Francis is on his way to Baghdad. The Holy See published the schedule of his travels. It includes visits to Baghdad, Najaf, Erbil, Mosul, Qaraqosh.

Francis in Iraq – the day 0 -

Francis is a Head of state and the Head of a Church. As such, and together with the British Monarch, he is a unique figure in the Western world, where superimposing the concept of political authority on the religious one is otherwise impossible. That is due to the European modern concept of the State, imported to the East about a century ago and remained there even after the end of colonialism. Caliphate and imamate, expressions of local juridical and religious culture, represent what one in Europe would define as Caesaropapism.

While melting State and Church is a common point in Rome (Vatican) and in the East, Abraham represents a common historical and religious point of reference, somewhat characterizing current geopolitical evolutions. Last year, his figure was used to promote an intra-Sunni and Israeli axis. Now, perhaps with greater historical awareness and more universal(istic) puropses, he is recalled as the common ancestry of the monotheistic faiths. He is also symbolically present in a visit that lasts from Friday to Sunday. John Paul II would maybe have defined this apostolic journey as a travel “to Ur”.

Francis will pay a visit to Grand Ayatollah ʿAlī al-Husaynī al-Sīstānī, a Persian scholar resident in Najaf for more than seventy years. In his capacity as marjaʿ al-taqlīd, he is the leader and a model of imitation at the school (ḥawza ʿilmiyya) established by Abul-Qassim al-Khu’i.

The school is usually referred to as “the silent” for having adopted an apparently low profile. The truth is that it influenced decisively post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi politics and drafted for the Country a policy alternative to both the Iranian and Muqtadā al-Ṣadr’s visions.

Sīstānī will not sign the Papal document on human brotherhood for the peace in the world and the common coexistence (in every sense, a Franciscan theme) which instead received the approval of the Sunni Legal School headed by al-Azhar. It is clearly a sign of independence. An independence that Sīstānī and his school probably want to keep for the future to structure a broad Iraqi Shiite national consensus independent of both Iranian aims and a Western influence that is perceived as too strong. By greeting and welcoming Francis, however, Sīstānī legitimizes himself as the counterpart of a religious dialogue and therefore accepts his role as interlocutor for an important part of Iraq. Other parts, therefore, will result excluded. When Iraq will soon be called upon to distance itself from Iran, Sīstānī position will achieve dividends that will be cashed and distributed in Najaf.

Francis’s visit seems to be focused on the Shiite and Kurdish sides. That can be easily explained. They constitute the backbone of the Iraqi issues that concern the Holy See and many in the West. In addition, the Autonomous Region of Iraqi Kurdistan has made substantial efforts to protect the Christian communities fleeding Syria and the rest of Iraq. The current head of Daesh, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, comes from Tel Afar, an area disputed by the Autonomous Region, not far from Mosul. And he is a Turkmen. Who knows if, after this visit, the Vatican will allocate financial aid and more attention to the Region?

On the one side, Francis is concerned with the health (in latin: salus, a term one can translate also with “safety” or “salvation”) of the Iraqi Catholic communities. On the other side, he represents the whole Christian world in the minds and hearts of his hosts, not used to distinguishing between a Christian and a secular West and between the many different faces of Christianity. Francis visits Iraq as a “penitent pilgrim to beg from the Lord forgiveness and reconciliation after years of war and terrorism”. Identifying war and terrorism as those brought exclusively by al-Qaeda and then by Daesh will allow Francis to deliver the right message to the Kurds, to the Iraqi majority and even to Tehran.

Iran and Turkey are concerned by, and probably not enthusiastic about this visit. Ankara fears nasty presences in its backyard, Tehran fears the further distancing of Sistani after the elimination of Gen. Soleimani. Ankara has also distanced itself from Francis, despite a good start with the 2014 visit. Iran and Turkey have an ancient tradition of diplomatic relations with the Holy See. John XXIII was Apostolic Nuncio and administrator in Constantinople, and Francis, who closely resembles John, architects his apostolate under the sign of universalism.

As always, will carefully follow such an important visit, reporting daily the analyses Turkish and Iranian (and their proxies’) press will write on it and outlining possible interpretations. We are in in the era of President Biden, an Irish Catholic.