Pope Francis told the President of Iraq, Barham Ahmed Salih Qassim, and other local politicians and diplomats, that the Catholic Church in Iraq desires to be “a friend to all and, through interreligious dialogue, to cooperate constructively with other religions in serving the cause of peace.”
“I come as a penitent, asking forgiveness of heaven and my brothers and sisters for so much destruction and cruelty,” the pope said.
“I come as a pilgrim of peace in the name of Christ, the Prince of Peace. How much we have prayed in these years for peace in Iraq. St. John Paul II spared no initiatives and above all offered his prayers and sufferings for this intention.”
The pope called for an end to “partisan interests” and “those outside interests uninterested in the local population.”
“Give a voice to the builders and to the artisans of peace. The voice of the humble, the poor, the ordinary men and women who want to live, work and pray in peace.”
“May there be an end to acts of violence and extremism, factions and intolerance,” Pope Francis said.
Security continues to be a major challenge facing Iraq, where the Islamic State continues to operate -- albeit without any territory. Iran-backed militias also contribute to the current unstable security situation.
The Islamic State claimed twin suicide bombings in Baghdad in January that killed 32 people. There are some 10,000 Islamic State fighters in the world, mostly in Iraq, UN counter-terrorism chief Vladimir Voronkov said in February.
The pope’s meetings with Iraqi authorities come at a time when the country is also facing severe political and socioeconomic challenges, including a protest movement calling for an end to government corruption, high levels of unemployment, and the sectarian divisions within the political system established after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Pope Francis declared in his speech to Iraqi government leaders that it is “necessary, but not sufficient, to combat the scourge of corruption, misuse of power and disregard for law.”
“At the same time, it is necessary to build justice, increase honesty, transparency and strengthen the institutions responsible for this,” the pope said.
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“In this way, stability within society grows and a healthy politics arises, able to offer to all, especially the young of whom there are so many in this country, sure hope for a better future.”
About 60% of Iraqi’s population is under the age of 25. The unemployment rate for young people in Iraq is estimated to be 36%, according to a report published by the Atlantic Council in February.
Low oil prices, government waste and corruption, and a poor security situation further hinder the country’s potential for economic growth.
There were about 150 people present for the pope’s speech at the presidential palace, according to the Vatican. This palace was spared during the 2003 bombing of Baghdad by the United States and later became the headquarters of the coalition forces during the occupation of Iraq.
“Over the past several decades, Iraq has suffered the disastrous effects of wars, the scourge of terrorism and sectarian conflicts often grounded in a fundamentalism incapable of accepting the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups, different ideas and cultures,” Pope Francis said.
“All this has brought in its wake death, destruction and ruin, not only materially: the damage is so much deeper if we think of the heartbreak endured by so many individuals and communities, and wounds that will take years to heal.”