At a prayer event held at Abraham’s Birthplace in Iraq, a Shia cleric read to the Pope from the Ibrahim Sura, a section of the Koran that describes the evil of “idolatrous leaders”. Though the event was billed as a gathering of all of Abraham’s descendants, the clearest and most ancient bloodline, that of Isaac and Jacob, was notably uninvited.
Prayer for the “Sons and Daughter of Abraham”
Pope France became the first pontiff to visit Iraq on Friday, with the highlight of his four-day visit being a prayer service for “the sons and daughters of Abraham” held at the alleged birthplace of the first patriarch.
“I come among you as a pilgrim of peace, to repeat ‘you are all brothers,’” Francis said in a video message to the Iraqi people on the eve of his visit. “I come as a pilgrim of peace in search of fraternity, animated by the desire to pray together and walk together, also with brothers and sisters of other religious traditions.”
Precise data is difficult to find but there were an estimated 1.4 million Christians in Iraq in 2003. Today the number is believed to be around 250,000. The Pope paid a visit to Mosul where he viewed the ruins of four churches destroyed by the Islamic State (ISIS).
“How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people – Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others – forcibly displaced or killed,” the Pope said in his address at the prayer event of the Sons and Daughter oif Abraham. “Today, however, we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war.”
Pope Listens to the Koran
The prayer service was observed by a recitation of the Koran. The selections of the Koran, sung in Arabic in classical Islamic fashion, included selections from the Ibrahim Sura reflecting the Abrahamic theme and setting of the event. One verse in the Ibrahim Sura that was not sung to the visiting pontiff was, “Idolatrous leaders will confess themselves unable to assist their deluded followers in the day of judgment.” Like many sections of the Koran, the Ibrahim Sura describes the horrible fate in store for “infidels”. It also states, “Abraham prays for himself and children that they may be kept from idolatry.”
Dr. Mordechai Kedar, a senior lecturer in Arabic studies at Bar Ilan Unitversity, noted that this admonition in the Ibrahim Sura was not directed at the Pope.
“Catholics are not considered ‘infidels by Islam because Catholics have a ‘book’, meaning they acknowledge the Bible. Infidels are people who have more than one God, or partners with God.”
It should be noted that some elements in Islam object to the Catholic belief in the trinity.
“The Koran states specifically that ‘Good is never got’ meaning he has no son, and is never begotten, meaning he was never born,” Dr. Kedar said. He noted that when Pope John Paul II in visited Nazareth in 2000, the Islamic movement hung a sign in plain view stating this verse from the Koran. Dr. Kedar noted that Pope Benedict was read and understood Arabic so he clearly understood the import of the sign.
Dr. Kedar also noted that the Dome of the Rock is covered with Arabic calligraphy composed from verses in the Koran specifically targeting Christianity.
“But the more immediate problem Islam has with Catholicism is its practice of religious icons and the cross with the image of Jesus. It is not the Catholic theology which is problematic to Islam as much as it is this custom,” Dr. Kedar said.
“Pope’s Visit Changes Nothing”
Dr. Kedar discounted the event as having any practical impact.
“Maybe some people in the west think that speeches like this have meaning but this is not the way they view this in Iraq,” Dr. Kedar explained. “The Pope went there to try to alleviate the very real plight of Christians who are being oppressed and killed. But those who hate Christians will continue to hate Christians no matter what the pope says and those who tolerate Christians will continue to do so. If the Pope thinks he will change a single person’s mind, he is being overly optimistic.”
“What I want to know is what does the Pope think he is doing there?,” Dr. Kedar said. “Does he really think that because of his visit, Islamists will stop killing Christians? Will it really bother jihadists who murder Christians to lie to his face during a four day visit? Public speeches in many cultures are no more than wishful thinking and pretty words. It would be foolish to expect things to change in Iraq, for Christians to be hugged and allowed to pray in Churches, just as a result of this visit.”
“This was a media event. Public events are as far as possible from reality and this visit by the pope was a show,” Dr. Kedar said. “From the side of the Muslims, they did not really intend anything by the particular sura they chose, other than saying pretty words from the Koran.”
Dr. Kedar noted that political relations between such diverse cultures are fraught with misunderstandings, sometimes to an absurd degree. He noted that when Pope Benedict XVI met with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in the Vatican in 2007, the king gifted the pontiff a gold and silver sword studded with precious jewels.
“This gift is positively stunning if you think for even one moment about the history of Muslim-Catholic relations,” Dr. Kedar said. “Even on these levels, the misunderstandings from both sides are more common and more extreme than you would believe.”
Where are the Jews?
“Today we, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, together with our brothers and sisters of other religions, honor our father Abraham by doing as he did: we look up to heaven and we journey on earth,” the Pope stated at the beginning of his speech.
Despite this opener, Jews were, in fact, notably missing from the list of victims spoken about at the event and excluded from the guest list, despite also suffering from religious oppression in Iraq. The Jewish community in Iraq dates back 2,500 years. The Tomb of the Prophet Nahum is located in Iraq. In 2020 the synagogue beside Ezekiel’s Tomb was converted into a mosque. The Jewish community was targeted throughout history by periodic violence culminating in the second half of the 20th Century. In 1951, Israel carried out Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, airlifting between 120,000 and 130,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel via Iran and Cyprus. Only about 5,000 Jews remained. In 1968 there were only 2,000 Jews left. In 2020 the Jewish Population in Iraq stood at four.
Pope Meets With Iranian-Iraq Ayatollah
While in Iraq, Pope Francis met with Grand Ayatollah Sayyid al-Sistani, a Shia cleric of Iranian origins, in the city of Najaf, the third holiest city of Shia Islam and the center of Shi’ite political power in Iraq. Al-Sistani’s 2014 fatwa, or religious edict, calling on able-bodied men to join the security forces in fighting the ISIL (ISIS) group swelled the ranks of Shia militias. Many iof those militia were closely tied to Iran. Al-Sistani wields great political power in Iraq and in 2019, his sermon led to the resignation of then-prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. The Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah has praised al-Sistani as one of Shia Islam’s “most prominent religious references.”
“Al-Sistani is an interesting figure who is not easily defined as ‘good’ or ‘bad’,” Dr. Kedar emphasized. “He is the head of the Shia once issued a fatwa saying that if Israelis came to Iraq to do business or for tourism, they are welcome.”
The prayer event was held at a pyramidic ziggurat in Ur, which some believe was the birthplace of Abraham. Located about 200 miles south of the capital Baghdad, is a Neo-Sumerian structure near Nasiriyah, in present-day Dhi Qar Province. In ancient times, this ziggurat served as a religious center as it was part of a temple complex dedicated to idolatry. The recovery of about 2,000 burials by archaeologists indicates that the site, excavated about 100 years ago by Leonard Woolley, was used for the practice of human sacrifice on a large scale.
Later on Saturday, the pontiff celebrated Mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of Saint Joseph in the capital, Baghdad. The pope flew back to the Vatican on Monday.