RFI Joins Discussion Hosted by Al-Rafidain Center for Dialogue on The Papal Visit to Iraq

March 5, 2021

On Monday, March 1, the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI) partnered with the Al-Rafidain Center for Dialogue (RCD) and the Strategic Resource Group to convene a panel to discuss Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to Iraq and its potential implications for religious freedom. RCD hosted the online event, “The Papal Visit to Iraq: Readings in the Spiritual and Political Meanings and Implications.”

The event featured a distinguished lineup of leading Muslim and Christian religious leaders and scholars including, Prof. Dr. Hasan Latif al-Zubaidi (Director of Al-Rafidain Center for Dialogue), RFI Senior Fellow Dr. Kent Hill, Dr. Shaykh Abd-al-Latif al-Hamim (Former Head of the Sunni Endowment of Iraq), Shaykh Muhannad al Sa’idi, and Sayyid Mudhar al-Hilu. Prof. Dr. Ahmad Sami al-Mamouri, Director of RCD’s Research and Development Department), moderated the event.

This forum provided an excellent opportunity for attendees to gain a better understanding of what may contribute to the flourishing of religious freedom and stability in the strife-riven Iraqi region. Additionally, the discussion provided insight into what Pope Francis, as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, can accomplish there in terms of promoting tranquility and solidarity between peoples of different faiths.

During the event, Dr. Kent Hill made several key observations that help contextualize the significance of Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq. The trip has two stated objectives, to show solidarity with suffering Christian communities and to further a culture of tolerance and respect between religious communities through meetings with high-level religious and political leaders.

Success in either of those aims will require more than just words of compassion or gestures of solidarity, but must move to practical steps in law and culture to address the drivers of persecution and the failures to protect Iraq’s Christians and other minority communities.

Hill noted, “In recent decades, Iraq has been torn apart by sectarian violence, political instability … and the results have been particularly devastating for Iraq’s ethnic and religious minorities.” He then stated, “It is into such an environment that Pope Francis is coming to Iraq.”

The big question Hill raised is whether, despite the wounds of historical and current violence in the region, Pope Francis could make a contribution to the peace between Shias, Sunnis, Yazidis, and Christians. Hill remarked that he believed Pope Francis’ planned meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani bodes very well for the success of the visit, which is, above all, intended to promote peace and the conversion of hearts.

Francis’ visit with the Ayatollah, a major leader in Shia Islam, can encourage good will between Muslims and Christians. Such encouragement could increase the awareness of Iraq’s Muslim majority as to its duty to care for the nation’s minorities and defend them from extremist attacks. Furthermore, the Pope’s visit can demonstrate to Muslims the eagerness of Christians to foster genuine, mutual respect across faith traditions.

This respect is grounded in the dignity of every human person, a dignity borne out of a common humanity, but should not be approached by means akin to religious syncretism, which diminishes the truth claims of religious communities. Sustainable peace in the Middle East is strengthened, not diminished, when communities of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others are able to draw upon the deepest sources of truth within their own tradition to find common ground and articulate the foundation for human dignity. Religious freedom protects the right of all individuals to live by their faith tenets, even in deeply pluralistic societies, without fear of discrimination, coercion, or violence.

Shaykh al-Hamim echoed this sentiment, expressing a hope that the response to the papal visit would strengthen national unity and support an environment that enables the youth of Iraq to lead in freedom of thought and exchange of ideas. Iraqi Muslims have been receptive to this respectful spirit of engagement.

Hill concluded:

[T]he historic three-day visit of Pope Francis to Iraq beginning on March 5 can pay rich dividends to the people of Iraq, the region, and the world, but none of this would be possible apart from the warm welcome the government of Iraq has promised and the willingness to meet with the Pope of eminent clerics such as the important spiritual leader of Iraq — Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Pope Francis’ visit should serve not only to stand in solidarity with suffering communities, but it is an opportunity to speak boldly and call for changes in law and society that will undercut the forces of extremism and violence that have cost Iraq so much.

Read Kent Hill’s full remarks.