Abu Dhabi (Agenzia Fides) - Today Pope Francis began his apostolic journey to Iraq, while yesterday, March 4, marked the 5th anniversary of the massacre in which in Aden, Yemen, four nuns of Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta were killed in company of a dozen mostly Muslim employees. The singular coincidence was pointed out by Bishop Paul Hinder, OFM Cap, Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia. As the first visit of a Pope to the homeland of Abraham takes place, this story of martyrdom and suffering shared by Christians and Muslims recalls circumstances which have marked even recently the Churches in Iraq and the people of the country. "The fruit of their martyrdom (of the four aforementioned nuns) - recognizes the Apostolic Vicar of South Arabia - cannot be measured with the help of statistics. However, they remain for us a provocative sign of a love that goes beyond sentimentalism and can lead to sharing the same fate as the Jesus crucified. These nuns knew the danger but did not flee. I am sure that their martyrdom will bear fruit".
Pope Francis' trip to a nearboring Arab country - Bishop Hinder reports to Fides - arouses unique emotions and expectations within the diverse Catholic community of the Vicariate: "our faithful follow with interest and curiosity the visit of Pope Francis to Iraq. This is especially the case for Iraqi Christians who live in the country. There are two schools in Dubai and Sharjah, run by the Iraqi nuns of Mary Immaculate. Among our faithful, who are predominantly Indians and Filipinos, it is above all our Arabic-speaking faithful from Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt, who are looking in the direction of Iraq these days. Many of them have links if not with Iraq at least with people who lived in Mesopotamia or who still live there. Muslims are also showing their interest. One of them explicitly expressed his admiration to me for the Pope's courage to visit Iraq at this critical moment".
On February 4, 2019, Pope Francis and al-Azhar's Imam Ahmed al Tayyeb signed the Document for Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together in Abu Dhabi. Since then, the rediscovery of the bond of fraternity that unites all the children of God has been proposed by Pope Francis - also in the Encyclical "Fratelli Tutti" - as a starting point for to face together the conflicts and global emergencies that hurt and tire peoples' lives.
The Pope's apostolic trip to Iraq, the first Shiite-majority country visited by Pope Francis, has as its motto the evangelical phrase "You are all brothers" and Fraternity as the key word. The future will tell whether from now on institutions and circles of Shiite Islam will also get involved in the path of sharing that began in Abu Dhabi - to which subjects of Sunni Islam have so far joined - or whether mistrust and objections also conditioned by geopolitical contrasts will prevail. "We know well" - acknowledges in this regard Bishop Hinder "that even in the Muslim world there are discords, and not only between Sunnis and Shiites. Unfortunately, these differences are made even deeper by ideological and political reasons. However, the fact that there is an abyss between Riyadh and Tehran does not mean that a dialogue between religious representatives is not practicable In this area, I do not believe in sudden progress, indicates realistically the Apostolic Vicar of South Arabia - but I myself am witnessing a promising development in interreligious dialogue. What I have seen and experienced during the 17 years I that I have lived in Arabia confirms to me that it is possible to approach and progress together with patience and confidence. The apostolic visit of Pope Francis in 2019 - recalls Bishop Hinder - was a strong sign and also well received by Muslims in the region.
Relations with the authorities are marked by growing mutual respect. The pandemic has slowed down on face-to-face meetings, but contacts continue with the digital means available".
The profiles of the Christian communities present in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula are different. The Christians of the countries of the Peninsula are immigrant workers who came in search of employment while the Christians present in Iraq belong to indigenous Christian communities that have been drastically reduced in recent years due to emigration. The fact remains that Bishop Hinder shares the considerations expressed by the Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako in the recent interview with Fides (see Fides, 3/3/2021), where the Iraqi Cardinal reaffirmed that the Pope is not in Iraq to "strengthen Christians" in the whirlwind of sectarian conflicts, and also rejected the theories of those who argue that only aid from outside - economic, military or other types) can save Middle Eastern Christian communities from extinction. "Even if the political, social, economic and religious conditions play an important role for Christians and non-Christians" underlines Bishop Hinder, "it must be recognized that the permanence of Christians in a region is not only a product of favorable conditions, but is above all the fruit of grace that works in the hearts of the faithful. We have seen it throughout history of many countries around the world and this is what is happening in Iraq today. Let us never forget that faith in Christ is first of all a gift of the Holy Spirit who blows where he wants, even and above all in difficult conditions. We need to let go of our obsession with looking only at statistics and numbers. There are Christians in Iraq who are witnesses of the crucified and risen Lord and thus remain a sign of life which overcomes all tragedies". With regard to the situation of Christian communities in the Arabian Peninsula, Bishop Hinder confirms the negative consequences that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on the work activities of Christian immigrants and on ecclesial life itself: "It is still too early to take stock" warns the Apostolic Vicar "but a numerical decrease in immigrants is already perceptible and consequently this decrease is also reflected in our Christian communities. Perhaps what weighs the most is the insecurity that is very often associated with isolation due to restrictions. The fact that the churches have been closed for many months and in part still continue to be closed is a burden for many who frequent the house of the Lord as a place of consolation for their fears and sufferings. It cry to see people praying outside the walls of the church, because we are not allowed to converse open in the parish complex. Then, thank God, there are those signs of open and discreet solidarity with the faithful who find themselves in difficulty. Much is done virtually, but I have never understood the importance of having real contact with people as much as I do now, at this time when this contact is very limited and I perceive that many are the ones who share with me this same experience. (GV) (Agenzia Fides, 5/3/2021)