VATICAN CITY (RNS) – On board the papal flight back from Iraq, the first papal trip since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pope Francis criticized those who accused him of being “at one no heresy ”in its commitment to promote human brotherhood among faiths around the world.
“Some critics say that the Pope is not courageous but reckless, that he is taking action against Catholic doctrine, that he is one step away from heresy,” the Pope told reporters on Monday (March 8th).
Francis said his decision to speak with Muslim religious leaders and promote interfaith dialogue is “always taken in prayer, in dialogue, asking for advice.” He said his efforts to mend Christian-Muslim relations, far from being “capricious”, are in accordance with the doctrine set forth by the Second Vatican Council.
Francis became the first Roman pontiff to visit Iraq when he began his apostolic visit from March 5 to 8. There he visited his declining Christian community and spoke with political and religious representatives from different faith groups and denominations.
On Saturday March 6, the Pope met in Najaf, a holy city for Shia Muslims, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most prominent Shiite leader. The historic meeting, which lasted around 45 minutes, was the first official meeting between a pope and a prominent Shiite representative.
The pope described al-Sistani as “a humble man” who has “wisdom and prudence”, adding that “it was good for my soul to meet him”. Francis said the meeting was “a duty on his pilgrimage of faith” to promote human brotherhood between religions.
It was the second great action of Francis with Muslims. In 2019, Francis co-signed a declaration of human brotherhood in Cairo, Egypt, with Sunni Muslim leader Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar.
While the Pope and al-Sistani did not sign any documents, Francis described the meeting as “a second step” in the realization of the vision enshrined in his 2020 encyclical “Brothers All”.
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Francois’ visit also drew criticism for his apparent disregard for health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the Pope and Vatican citizens have already received the vaccine, Francis has been repeatedly questioned for not wearing a mask and told reporters on Monday he “really felt in prison” during the lockdown.
“This (trip) for me is like coming back to life, because it means touching the church, touching the holy people of God, all people,” he said, defending his decision to travel in Iraq as coming “from within” and “knowing the risks”.
It was the tragic decimation of the Yazidi ethnic community by the Islamic State group following the occupation of northern Iraq in 2014 that inspired the pope to make the trip, he said. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Nadia Murad’s book “The Last Daughter”, which described the suffering of the Yazidi people, “served as a backdrop to the decision,” he said.
On Sunday March 7, Francis visited the ruins of mosques and churches in Mosul, the capital of the Islamic State during the occupation. He said he “had no words” after seeing the scale of the destruction. “Human cruelty, our cruelty, is impossible to believe,” he added.
The Pope also criticized nations selling arms, although he did not choose any particular country.
The return flight to the Vatican on Monday coincided with International Women’s Day. Speaking on Sunday in Qaraqosh, a Christian town on the Iraqi plains of Nineveh, the pope called for women “to be respected and given opportunities.”
“Women today are humiliated,” Francis told reporters, citing atrocities against women that continue to take place today, from human trafficking to genital mutilation. In Africa and in the outskirts of Rome, “women are still slaves, and this is something we have to fight,” he added.
Among the topics addressed by the Pope during the trip was the issue of the suffering of immigrants, which was at the center of this pontificate. Francis met the father of a 3-year-old boy who died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Alan Kurdi’s body photo has become a symbol of the plight of immigrants and refugees in Europe and beyond.
“Urgent measures are needed so that people can have jobs in their country so that they do not need to migrate,” he said. The massive exodus of Iraqi Christians, who left ghost towns behind in search of better opportunities, was one of the main reasons the Pope made the trip.
He congratulated Jordan and Lebanon for welcoming migrants and refugees, adding that he does not rule out an apostolic visit to Lebanon in the future.
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