On Friday, Pope Francis did something entirely new: he became the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church ever to visit Iraq. And he did so with a message as old as humanity itself: We are all connected. We join millions in hoping the new platform in the cradle of civilization gives fresh urgency to his message of civility.
The pope visited the ancient city of Ur on Saturday, the birthplace of Abraham, and thus a fitting place to remind the world of our commonality. Abraham, of course, is revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. In visiting Ur, Francis chose to symbolically return to a time before any of those three religions existed, a time that seems closer to the creation of humans in the image of God than to the despotic rule, war and extremism that have ravaged Iraq in recent decades.
Let’s not forget that Mosul, which the pope visited on Sunday, was ever-so-recently controlled by the murderous Islamic State. To see the white-robed pontiff walk the streets once under ISIS control and preach peace and unity of all mankind was a stark counter to violent extremists who intended to extend oppression from there.
Francis’ own religion is shrinking in Iraq. Almost 1 million Christians have fled since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, according to The New York Times. Another 500,000 have stayed. But the congregation of people who want peace is always larger than it seems. The crowds following Francis revealed as much.
As a motto for this first papal outing since the pandemic began, the Vatican has chosen a snippet of a verse from Matthew’s gospel. “You are all brothers,” Jesus told his followers. There are lessons for all our faiths in that passage. In the same breath, Jesus instructed his followers not to exalt religious leaders. He condemned hypocrisy. He warned against empty ritualism and blind adherence to religious law. And he admonished us all to pursue our faith with humility. These are messages that could contribute to peace in any land, not least an ancient one where religious strife has brought much suffering.
It’s worth noting that such a trip was not possible to imagine before Saddam Hussein was removed from power, and it shows that even while tyranny never seems far off, the people of Iraq are in the midst of a grand struggle of building a democracy as a counterweight to autocracy.
From our seat half a world away, Francis’ visit to Iraq seems rich in symbolism, wisdom, relevance and courage. The world needs religious leaders who visit war-torn lands and promote peace. And we’ll add that we need the same in the strife-torn neighborhoods and news feeds here at home.
Perhaps the pope’s “You are all brothers” message can point all of us — from Mesopotamia to Midlothian — toward another of the world’s great theologians: Bono of the rock band U2, whose 2014 album “Songs of Innocence” repeats this proverb seven times:
There is no them.
There is only us.