Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq gives the Muslim majority Arab world the time to reflect upon the importance of inclusiveness for their own very identity and existence. Newspapers across the region have acknowledged the slackness showed by the Muslim Arabs in protecting their Christian brethren during the onslaught by the ISIS.
The recently-concluded visit by Pope Francis to Iraq has clearly reaffirmed the age-old template that ‘it’s never too late to make things right’. Indeed the pontiff of the Catholic Church has been playing an influential role in the world affairs torn by conflict and violence with a healing touch, and this visit to a volatile state augurs well for us – to build bridges among different communities divided by narrow religious doctrines. The Pope’s reaching out to a Muslim majority state, where its minority Christian subjects have been facing the onslaught of the extremist Islamists in recent times, will encourage similar situations in different parts of the world, including us for a peaceful coexistence and development.
During this landmark visit, Pope Francis held masses at Baghdad followed by visits to Mosul, Irbil, Ur and Qaraqash. In Ur, the birth place of Prophet Abraham – the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the Pope took part in an all-prayer meeting followed by a mass in Qaraqash. Qaraqash is a predominantly Christian area in Iraq which saw a brutal persecution of the community along with other minorities like the Yazedis by the ISIS. The congregation at the church of Al Tahera in Qaraqash has a great significance as it reflects the resolute stand by the Iraqi state to protect and accommodate its once vibrant minority community badly affected by the turmoil caused by the military intervention of the West that paved the way for Islamist militancy in a secular Arab nation. Indeed Pope Francis’ maiden visit to Iraq has brought back the legacy of the Arab Christians, one of the ancients in the faith, in an overwhelmingly Muslim landmass for a discourse badly ignored by the world.
Historically, the Jews and Christians were the mainstream of the entire Arab world from the Euphrates to the Nile before the advent of Islam in the deep interiors of the peninsular desert. Therefore, like the Mizrahi Jews (Middle-eastern Jews), the Arab Christians comprising many orders like the Rum Orthodox, Assyrians, Catholics, Chaldeans, Syriacs, Armenians, Maronites, Protestants and Coptics share the same cultural practices from food to dresses, language and etiquettes. More than that, the Christians played a major role in forming the modern Arab nationalism, a collective identity which is under attack in the entire Middle-east in the last two decades. The entire Arab Middle-east, a primitive farming society, was under the Ottoman imperial rule for 400 years from 1516 to 1918. They provided unlimited human resources for the military ventures of the Sultan. Though the Christian subjects of the Arab provinces of the Ottomans were exempted from conscription, they were levied higher taxes and were considered as ‘second class’ citizens. But an earlier deal between the European powers and the Sultan allowed the Arab Christians to have some decent educational institutions. As part of that deal, the Vatican established a school for the teaching and preparation of Maronite priests in Lebanon in 1585. Students, with the education and knowledge from such institutions, began researching and publishing their own Arab heritage creating a literary renaissance. By the beginning of the 19th century, this movement reached Egypt and Iraq which produced literary genius like Khalil Gibran, a Maronite. Arab Christians organized cultural activities related to the Arabic language and customs in major cities like Damascus and Beirut as the Arab cultural crisis deepened due to an aggressive Turkish nationalism.
The call for the ‘liberation of the Arab homeland’ from Turkish rule and the establishment of a unified Arab state was prominently championed by Arab Christians like Boutros Al Boustany and Ebrahim Yazaji. Bishop Duwayhi of Lebanon in the 18th century wrote to Muslim scholars in Damascus appealing to them “to look to their Christian brothers instead of looking to the religious association with the Turkish outsiders in Istanbul, stressing that the national common is stronger than the religious common and more promising”. That the Arabs – with their different faiths and sects – can only be united through a secular identity was the hallmark of that movement. In the decades that followed, dozens of social and literary clubs and associations were set up by the Arab intellectuals, calling for Arab unity and independence. Newspapers and magazines started to appear in the market. Egypt’s Al Ahram, the Arab world’s largest newspaper in present times, was founded in Alexandria in 1875 by the Christian brothers, Beshara and Saleem Takla, from Lebanon. The 1916 Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turkey was partly a result of the efforts of the early champions of Arab independence.
In the last century, Christian thinkers and politicians continued their vital contribution to the ideological formation of Arab society and had key roles in establishing pan-Arab movements including the Baath Party in Syria and Iraq. Antun Saadeh, a Syrian nationalist and promoter of the cultural cohesion of Greater Syria, Michael Aflek, founder the Baath Party, Constantine Zuraiq and George Habash, leaders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a historic figure in the Palestinian struggle for independence were some of the great examples of Arab Christians who dedicated their entire life for a national unity.
However, things had dramatically changed from the 1970s following the Cold War designs in the Middle-east over Israel and the energy supply as the secular republican regimes in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Algeria and Libya co-opted Moscow opposing the US. The promotion of the Islamist ideologies in the Gulf monarchies supplemented by the oil boom and US support created a trans-national pan-Islamic narrative that succeeded in weakening the secular Arab nations by all means – sectarianism, war and militancy in the form of al Qaeda, ISIS. The American military intervention in Iraq on the false pretext of Saddam Hussein’s WMD was the beginning of the destruction of once ideal landscape of Arab nationalism where 1.8 million Christians lived in dignity and security. The repetition of the western duplicity on democracy and political freedom vis-a-vis the Arab world during the Arab Spring allowed forces like the ISIS to unleash on the most diverse lands of the region – Syria and Iraq reducing the Christian population from 20% to 6%.
Thus, Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq gives the Muslim majority Arab world the time to reflect upon the importance of inclusiveness for their own very identity and existence. Newspapers across the region have acknowledged the slackness showed by the Muslim Arabs in protecting their Christian brethren during the onslaught by the ISIS. They are now saying that the departure of the Christians makes the Arab world “poorer culturally and socially, duller and a less interesting place to live in”. This is the message which should reach every corner of the world where concerted efforts are on to enforce a state system with exclusion.