The Pope sends out a message of fraternity - Hindustan Times
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The Pope sends out a message of fraternity

ByMark Tully
Mar 13, 2021 06:20 PM IST

During the Iraq visit, the Pope’s call for fraternity was appreciated by Muslim leaders. Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayeb, the Sunni Grand Imam of al-Azhar University, tweeted, “I hope his trip achieves the desired outcome to continue on the path of human fraternity.”

Last weekend, while India was focused on the campaign for the upcoming assembly polls, the eyes of the world were focused on the visit of Pope Francis to Iraq.

Pope Francis, accompanied by the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul Najib Michaeel Moussa, looks on at a square near the ruins of the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception (al-Tahira-l-Kubra), in the old city of Iraq's northern Mosul, March 7, 2021 (AFP)
Pope Francis, accompanied by the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul Najib Michaeel Moussa, looks on at a square near the ruins of the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception (al-Tahira-l-Kubra), in the old city of Iraq's northern Mosul, March 7, 2021 (AFP)

He described this visit as emblematic, which I take to mean setting a benchmark for papal visits. The Pope had to face considerable opposition to the visit from within the Vatican. It was feared he would be seen as irresponsible, travelling in the middle of a global pandemic. Then there was the question of the Pope’s health. He is 84-years-old and suffers severe pain from sciatica. But the Pope insisted he must go “as a penitential pilgrim asking God’s forgiveness for years of war, persecution and destruction”.

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Christian and other minority communities were the main victims of the barbarities committed during the Isis occupation of Iraq from 2014 to 2017. The Iraqi Christian community is reported to have declined from 1.5 million to 250,000 since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Travelling with the Pope was the Italian Cardinal Fernando Filoni who, as the Vatican’s ambassador in Iraq at the time, had tried to mediate between the United States (US) and Saddam Hussein. He had told a newspaper that Saddam Hussein was willing to negotiate.

His one condition was that he should not be humiliated. The former diplomat maintained, “It was a war founded on lies. Everything the Saddam Hussein regime was accused of didn’t exist, that included chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction”.

The theme of the Pope’s visit was fraternity, with particular emphasis on fraternity between religions. Fraternity was also the theme of his recent Encyclical called Fratelli Tutti (we are all brothers). During the Iraq visit, the Pope’s call for fraternity was appreciated by Muslim leaders. Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayeb, the Sunni Grand Imam of al-Azhar University, tweeted, “I hope his trip achieves the desired outcome to continue on the path of human fraternity.”

The Pope met the scholarly Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leading Shia cleric in Iraq and one of the senior-most leaders of Shia Islam. After their meeting, the Ayatollah issued a statement affirming his concern and saying that “Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security and with their full constitutional rights.”

While in Iraq, Pope Francis also addressed an interfaith meeting of Muslims, Christians, and other Iraqi communities held in Ur, the place where Abraham, the Patriarch of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism is believed to have been born. He called on believers to bear witness to God’s goodness through fraternity, and warned, “The greatest blasphemy is to profane God’s name by hating our brothers and sisters.”

Fraternity does accord with India’s tradition of religious pluralism, of which Swami Vivekananda is an outstanding example. He is often invoked now as a model of a patriotic Indian, a nationalist, but he was also one of the most profound thinkers of 19th century Hinduism.

Writing about the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, where he spoke to a western, largely Christian audience, he declared, “The Parliament has proved to the world that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character.” Vivekananda went on to foresee this fraternal destiny for all the world’s faith communities, and wrote, “Upon the banner of every religion will soon be written, in spite of resistance: “Help and not fight. Assimilation and not Destruction. Harmony and Peace and not Dissension”.

India has not yet fulfilled that destiny, which is why the Pope’s campaign for fraternity is relevant here too.

The views expressed are personal

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