Biden hails Pope Francis' 'historic' trip to Iraq

CNA_6044f119a91fc_206536.jpg Pope Francis celebrates Holy Mass at the Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil on March 7th, 2021. Credit: Vatican Media/CNA

President Joe Biden stated his admiration for Pope Francis on Monday, after the pontiff's four-day visit to Iraq.

"Pope Francis' visit was a historic and welcome first for the country," Biden stated on Monday. He noted that the trip "sent an important message, as Pope Francis said himself, that 'fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than death, that peace more powerful than war.'"

Pope Francis completed his visit to Iraq on Monday, the first-ever visit to the country by a pope. During the March 5-8 trip, he met with political and diplomatic leaders, and Catholic bishops, priests, and laypeople.

The pontiff also met with leading Shiite cleric Ayatollah Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and took part in an ecumenical meeting at the home of Abraham in Ur. At the meeting, Pope Francis appealed for peace, saying "let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters."

At a Mass before 10,000 attendees in Erbil, Pope Francis praised the generosity of Iraqi Christians "[e]ven amid great poverty and difficulty."

"Today, I can see at first hand that the Church in Iraq is alive, that Christ is alive and at work in this, his holy and faithful people," Pope Francis said.

Pope Francis also visited Mosul, once the second-largest city in Iraq, which was occupied by ISIS from 2014 until 2017. Biden, in his Monday statement, noted the "depravity and intolerance" of ISIS in the city.

The U.S. in 2016 had declared that ISIS had committed genocide in Iraq and Syria against Christians, Yazidis, and Shi'a Muslims, and Christians had reported horrific atrocities committed by ISIS in Mosul; the accounts included murder, rape, destruction of churches, and selling Christians into slavery. The Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioch reported 500 people killed by ISIS when they invaded Mosul.

Biden is just the second Catholic U.S. president. While leading U.S. bishops have commended some of his policies on immigration and fighting poverty, they have also condemned his support for taxpayer-funded abortion and gender ideology.

On Monday, he stated his admiration or Pope Francis "for his commitment to promoting religious tolerance, the common bonds of our humanity, and interfaith understanding."

Other U.S. offices and Catholic leaders hailed the papal trip. The Office of International Religious Freedom at the U.S. State Department commended the visit, calling it "a momentous opportunity to advance interfaith dialogue and harmony in Iraq and throughout the region."

"His Holiness Pope Francis' visit shows his solidarity with the Iraqi people, including vulnerable members of religious minority groups, who have suffered under the brutality of ISIS," the office stated.

Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C. said the trip was a reminder of "hope."

"His journey to Iraq reminds the entire world that hatred can never be the final word spoken – only the word hope. May he succeed in his efforts so that peace and friendship are given a rebirth," the cardinal wrote in his Sunday column for the archdiocesan paper.

In his Monday statement, Biden noted that Iraq is "home to one of the oldest and most diverse Christian communities in the world." Catholics in the country belong to various churches including Chaldean, Armenian, Syriac, Arab, and Assyrian churches.

The Assyrian Church of the East is based in the region and dates back to the earliest days of Christianity, but has historically been associated with the teachings of Nestorius which were condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431. Some members of the church have come into the Chaldean Catholic church, which is in full communion with Rome. Leaders of the Assyrian church have been in more regular dialogue with the papacy in recent decades.

At the March 7 Mass in Erbil, Pope Francis greeted the church's Patriarch Mar Gewargis III, and said that "our martyrs shine together like stars in the same sky! From there they call us to walk together, without hesitation, towards the fullness of unity."

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