Former Vatican ambassador in Baghdad looks ahead to Pope Francis’ trip to Iraq

IMG_20210219_WA0020.jpg Cardinal Fernando Filoni. Photo credits: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

When Cardinal Fernando Filoni served as the papal nuncio in Iraq in the early 2000s, he remained in Baghdad amid bombings and suicide attacks.

In an interview with EWTN, the cardinal remembered the words that Pope John Paul II said to him as he entrusted him with his diplomatic mission in Iraq in 2001 and looked ahead to Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the country on March 5-8.

Filoni was appointed as the Vatican’s ambassador to Iraq and Jordan in January 2001. At his episcopal ordination on March 19, 2001, Pope John Paul II said he was sending him as “a messenger of peace.”

Two years later, Filoni was at the apostolic nunciature in Baghdad during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which began on March 19, 2003.

“This was [a] very strong message which I took in my heart, which I always [kept] present in my mind, so you can imagine that two years after of that message … the same day of my episcopal ordination and the message which I received, started the war,” Filoni said.

He insisted on remaining in Iraq for the entirety of his diplomatic assignment throughout the first years of the Iraq War.

He was nearly killed when a car bomb exploded next to the nunciature in February 2006. 

“If you are a priest, you are [a] pastor, you cannot abandon your people,” Filoni said.

“When I was there, I said to the priests and the bishops: ‘We stay here; we don’t go away.’ We have to follow our people. We asked to open all the churches, to open the seminary, to open our shelters, so those who would like to come and to stay with us because they are fearing to be touched by bombs, they can come and find shelter in our places,” he said.

“And a lot of people, nighttime used to come in the churches bringing the mattress and staying together. It was a moment also sharing with the Muslims and the Christians also brotherhood.”

The cardinal wrote a book based on his experiences as a papal diplomat in Iraq from 2001 to 2006 entitled “The Church in Iraq.” 

He went on to serve as nuncio to the Philippines, “sostituto” at the Secretariat of State, and prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. He is currently the Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.

Filoni said that he hoped to be able to travel back to Iraq for Pope Francis’ visit in March. It will be the first time that a pope has visited the country.

The cardinal pointed out that one of the churches that Pope Francis will visit in Baghdad -- the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation -- was the site of a suicide attack by the Islamic State during Sunday Mass in 2010 in which more than 50 people were killed.

“I think of Baghdad where the Holy Father will meet the community, the Chaldean and the Syrian Catholic community in the cathedral where people were killed just a few years ago, will be an occasion to give enthusiasm, courage to the Christians to say ‘Please love your faith. We are with you as Catholics, as Christians, we are united,’” he said.

Filoni also highlighted the pope’s scheduled meeting with Ali al-Sistani, the leader of Shiite Muslims in Iraq, as particularly significant. 

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“The Holy Father already had occasion to be with the Sunni Muslims, now with the Shia Muslims. So it’s a good occasion to have an interreligious dialogue,” he said.

The meeting with the Shiite leader will take place in Najaf, which the cardinal pointed out is close to the tomb of the prophet Ezekiel, who “encouraged the people of Jerusalem enslaved there during [the] Babylonian exile.”

“He gave them hope. He gave them a vision, a vision that one day from bones, dead bones, new bodies will start. This is a vision. We have to think about it.”

“I was there to visit this tomb and I remember also how many Muslim pilgrims used to go to pray,” he said.

The cardinal acknowledged that security continues to be an issue in Iraq, but he said that the Iraqi people were “building slowly” towards peace. 

“It is a necessity that all minorities parts, religious, civil, all will concur in some way. You cannot just have peace because someone is imposing, but because you are building… This is internally, is up to them, but externally, to me is also we have to help them to get this condition, this peaceful condition,” he said.

Filoni shared his hope that Pope Francis’ visit to the northern regions of Iraq would be an encouragement to all the minority communities, including the Christians who suffered so much under the persecution of the Islamic State.

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“In the north, I remember well, when I used to meet people, Christians, our Christians,” he said.

“In a very strong spirit of faith … you are moved by the fact to see how deep is the faith of the people there.”