Speaking to journalists on the flight to Rome, Pope Francis retraces the stages of his historic visit to Iraq: the meeting with “the wise and man of God” Al Sistani, his feelings before the destroyed churches in Mosul, his emotion at the words of the Christian mother who lost her son and forgave his killers, the promise of a trip to Lebanon.
Charity, love and fraternity are the way forward. This was said by the Pope in conversation with journalists on the flight from Baghdad back to Rome, after the historic four-day trip to Iraq. Francis recounted his impressions of his meeting with Al Sistani, his emotion before the destroyed churches in Mosul and told of his promise to Patriarch Bechara Rai to undertake a trip to Lebanon. At the beginning of the meeting at high altitude, the Pontiff greeted Monsignor Dieunonné Datonou, the new coordinator of papal travels, whom he called “the new sheriff”. Then he addressed the journalists as follows: “First of all, thank you for your work, your company, and your tiredness. Today is Women’s Day, congratulations to women! In the meeting with the wife of the President of Iraq they were talking about why there is no men’s day. I said: because we men are always celebrating! The President’s wife talked to me about women, she said beautiful things today, about the strength that women have in carrying forward life, history, family, so many things. And thirdly: yesterday was the birthday of the Cope journalist: best wishes, we must celebrate, we’ll see how, here we can.”
Your Holiness, two years ago in Abu Dhabi you had a meeting with Imam Al Tayyeb of Al Azhar with the signing of the Declaration on Human Fraternity. Three days ago you met with Al Sistani: is it possible to think of something similar with the Shiite side of Islam? And then a second question about Lebanon: Saint John Paul II said more than a country it is a message. Today, unfortunately, as a Lebanese, I can tell you that this message is disappearing. Is your visit to Lebanon imminent?
The Abu Dhabi document of 4 February was prepared with the Grand Imam in secret, during six months, praying, reflecting and correcting the text. It was – it’s a bit presumptuous to say it, take it as a presumption – a first step of what you are asking about. We can say that this would be the second and there will be others. The path of fraternity is important. The Abu Dhabi document left in me the restlessness of fraternity, and then “Fratelli tutti” came out. Both documents should be studied because they go in the same direction, on the path of fraternity. Ayatollah Al Sistani has a phrase that I try to remember well: men are either brothers by religion or equal by creation. In fraternity is equality, but beneath equality we cannot go. I think it is also a cultural journey. Let’s think about us Christians, the Thirty Years’ War, the night of St. Bartholomew, to give an example. How the mentality changes among us: because our faith makes us discover that this is it, the revelation of Jesus is love and charity and leads us to this: but how many centuries has it taken to implement them! This is important, human fraternity, that as men we are all brothers, and we must move forward with other religions. The Second Vatican Council took a big step in this, and also the institutions after, the Council for Christian Unity and the Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Cardinal Ayuso accompanies us today. You are human, you are a child of God and you are my brother, period! This would be the greatest indication, and so many times you have to risk to take this step. You know that there are some criticisms: that the pope is not courageous, he is an reckless person who is taking steps against Catholic doctrine, that he is one step away from heresy, there are risks. But these decisions are always made in prayer, in dialogue, in asking for advice, in reflection. They are not a whim and also are the line that the Council taught. I come to the second question: Lebanon is a message, Lebanon suffers, Lebanon is more than a balance, it has the weakness of diversities, some still not reconciled, but it has the strength of the great reconciled people, like the strength of cedars. Patriarch Rai asked me please during this trip to make a stop in Beirut, but it seemed a bit of a crumb…. A crumb before the problems of a country that suffers like Lebanon. I wrote him a letter, I made a promise to make a trip. But Lebanon at this moment is in crisis, but in crisis – I do not want to offend – in crisis of life. Lebanon is so generous in welcoming refugees.
To what extent was the meeting with Al Sistani also a message toward the religious leaders of Iran?
I believe that it was a universal message I felt the duty to make this pilgrimage of faith and penance, and to go and see a great, a wise man, a man of God: only by listening to him do you perceive this. Speaking of messages, I would say that it is a message for everyone, and he is a person who has that wisdom and also prudence. He told me: “For 10 years I have not received people who come to visit me with other political and cultural purposes… only religious ones. And he was very respectful, very respectful in the meeting. I felt honored. Even at the time of greeting, he never gets up… He got up to greet me, twice, a humble and wise man, it did good to my soul this meeting. He is a beacon of light, and these wise men are everywhere because God’s wisdom has been scattered all over the world. It is the same with the saints who are not just those on the altars. It happens every day, those I call the the saints next door, men and women who live their faith, whatever it may be, with consistency. Those who live human values with consistency, fraternity with consistency. I think we should discover these people, highlight them, because there are so many examples… When there are scandals even in the Church, so many, and this does not help, but let’s show the people who seek the path of fraternity, the saints next door, and we will surely find people from our family, some grandfather, some grandmother.
Your trip had a huge repercussion around the world, do you think it could be “the trip” of the pontificate? It was also said to be the riskiest. Were you afraid at any point during your trip? You are about to complete the eighth year of your pontificate, do you still think it will be short? Finally, the big question: will you return to Argentina?
I’ll start with the last question… that I understand and is related to the book of my journalist friend Nelson Castro, a doctor. He had written a book on the illnesses of the presidents and I once said to him: if you come to Rome, you have to write one on the illness of the Popes, because it will be interesting to know about their illnesses, at least of some of the recent ones. He did an interview with me, and it came out in a book: they tell me it’s good, I haven’t seen it. He asked me a question, “If you resign will you go back to Argentina or will you stay here?” I said: I will not go back to Argentina, but I will stay here in my diocese. But in that hypothesis, the answer is combined with the question. When will I go to Argentina or why I don’t I go there… I always answer a little ironically: I’ve been 76 years in Argentina, is that enough, no? There is one thing that, I don’t know why, is not said: a trip to Argentina was planned in November 2017. It was starting to work out, we were planning on doing Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. It was for the end of November… But then at that time Chile was in an election campaign, in those days in December Michelle Bachelet’s successor was elected, and I had to go before she changed the government. So I couldn’t go. We had thought of doing it this way: let’s go in January to Chile and then Argentina and Uruguay… But it was not possible, because January is like July-August for the two countries. On rethinking it. the suggestion was made: why not associate Peru? Because Peru had been detached from the trip to Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay. It had been left aside. And from there the trip in January 2018 to Chile and Peru was born. But this I want to say so that there are no fantasies of “homeland-phobia”: when there is the opportunity it can be done, because there is Argentina, Uruguay, and the south of Brazil. Then regarding journeys: When the decision is made to travel, I listen to the advice of my advisors and sometimes someone comes and I ask: what do you think, should I go to that place? It’s good for me to listen, that helps me make decisions later on. I listen to advisors and at the end I pray, I reflect a lot, on some trips I reflect a lot. Then the decision comes from inside, from the gut, almost spontaneously, but like ripe fruit. It’s a long journey. Some are more difficult, others are easier. The decision for this trip came from time back, from the ambassador, a pediatrician who represented Iraq: she was very good, she insisted. Then came the ambassador to Italy, she is a woman of struggle. Then came the new ambassador to the Vatican. Before that, the President had come. All these things stayed with me. But there is one thing behind my decision that I would like to mention: one of you gave me the Spanish edition of the book “The Last Girl” by Nadia Mourad. I read it in Italian, it’s the story of the Yazidis. And Nadia Mourad tells terrifying things. I recommend you read it, in some places it may seem heavy, but for me this is the underlying reason for my decision. That book worked insideme. Even when I listened to Nadia who came to tell me terrible things… All these things together made the decision, thinking about all the issues, so many. But in the end the decision came and I made it. Then on the eighth year of the pontificate. Should I do this? (the Pope crosses his fingers in a sign of superstition, ed.). I don’t know if the trips will come true or not, I just confess that on this trip I got much more tired than on the others. The 84 years do not come alone, it’s a consequence… but we’ll see. Now I will have to go to Hungary for the final Mass of the International Eucharistic Congress, not a visit to the country, but just for the Mass. But Budapest is a two-hour drive from Bratislava, why not make a visit to Slovakia? That’s the way things come…
This trip was extraordinarily meaningful for people who were able to see you, but it was also a chance for the virus to spread, particularly for the people who were huddled together. Are you concerned that they might get sick and die from wanting to see you?
As I mentioned previously, the journeys “cook” over time in my consciousness, and this is one of the things that was empowering to me. I thought a lot, prayed a lot about it, and finally made the decision that truly came from within. And this [pandemic] was one of the things that made me question in my mind, maybe, maybe…. I prayed much and in the end, I took the free decision that came from within. And I said, ‘The one who led me to take that decision, let him take care of the people.’ I made the decision, conscious of the risks.” After everything.
We’ve seen the courage, the dynamism of Iraqi Christians, we’ve also seen the challenges they face, the threat of Islamist violence, the exodus and witnessing to the faith in their environment. These are the challenges of Christians throughout the region. We talked about Lebanon, but also Syria, the Holy Land. Ten years ago there was a Synod for the Middle East but its development was interrupted by the attack on Baghdad Cathedral. Are you thinking of doing something for the entire Middle East, a regional synod or any other initiative?
I am not thinking of a Synod, I am open to many initiatives but a Synod has not come to me. You have thrown the first seed, let’s see. The life of Christians is troubled, but not only that of Christians, we talked about the Yazidis… And this, I do not know why, gave me a very great strength. There is the issue of migration. Yesterday as we were driving back from Qaraqosh to Erbil, I was seeing a lot of people, young people, the age is very, very low. And the question somebody asked me: what is the future for these young people? Where are they going to go? Many of them will have to leave the country. Before leaving for the trip the other day, Friday, twelve Iraqi refugees came to say goodbye to me: one of them had a prosthetic leg because he had run away from the trucks and had an accident. Migration is a double right: the right not to migrate and the right to migrate. These people have neither, because they can’t not migrate, they don’t know how. And they cannot migrate because the world has not yet become aware that migration is a human right. Another time an Italian sociologist said to me, talking about the demographic winter in Italy: within forty years we will have to “import” foreigners to work and pay taxes on our pensions. You French have been smarter, you have gone ten years ahead with the law supporting the family, your level of growth is very great.
But migration is experienced as an invasion. Yesterday I wanted to receive after the Mass, because he asked for it, the father of Alan Kurdi, this child, who is a symbol. Alan Kurdi is a symbol: for this reason I gave the sculpture to FAO. It is a symbol that goes beyond that of a child who died in migration, a symbol of civilizations that die, that cannot survive, a symbol of humanity. Urgent measures are needed so that people have work in their own countries and do not have to migrate. And then measures to preserve the right to migrate. It is true that every country must study well the capacity to receive because it is not only the capacity to receive and leave them on the beach. It is to receive them, accompany them, advance them and integrate them. The integration of migrants is the key. Two anecdotes: in Zaventem, Belgium, the terrorists were Belgian, born in Belgium but ghettoized Islamic emigrants, not integrated. The other example, when I went to Sweden, the minister who said farewell to me was very young and had a special physiognomy, not typical of Swedes. She was the daughter of a migrant and a Swede, so integrated that she became a minister. Let’s think about these two things, they will make us think a lot: integrate. On migration, which I think is the drama of the region. I would like to thank the generous countries that receive migrants: Lebanon, which has, I think, two million Syrians; Jordan – unfortunately we will not pass over it and the King wanted to pay us a tribute with planes as we passed – is very generous: more than one and a half million migrants. Thanks to these generous countries! Thank you very much!
In three days in this key country of the Middle East you have done what the powerful of the earth have been discussing for thirty years. You have already explained what is the interesting genesis of your travels, how the choices of your travels are born, but now in this contingency, looking at the Middle East, can you consider a trip to Syria? What could be the objectives from here a year of other places where your presence is required?
In the Middle East only the hypothesis, and also the promise, is Lebanon. I haven’t thought about a trip to Syria, because the inspiration didn’t come to me. But I am so close to the tormented and beloved Syria, as I call it. I remember at the beginning of my pontificate that afternoon of prayer in St. Peter’s Square, there was the rosary, the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. And how many Muslims with carpets on the ground were praying with us for peace in Syria, to stop the bombing, at that moment when it was said that there would be a fierce bombing. I carry Syria in my heart. But thinking about a trip, it didn’t come to me.”
In these days, months, your activity has been very limited. Yesterday you had the first very close direct contact with the people in Qaraqosh: what did you feel? According to you, now with all the current health regime, can the general audiences with people, with faithful, recommence as before?
I feel different when I am away from the people in the audiences. I would like to start the general audiences again as soon as possible. Hopefully the conditions will be right, in this I follow the norms of the authorities. They are in charge and they have the grace of God to help us in this, they are in charge of giving the norms. We like them or we don’t like them, they are responsible and they have to do that. Now I have started again with the Angelus in the square, with the distances it can be done. There is the proposal of small General Audiences, but I have not decided until the development of the situation becomes clear. After these months of imprisonment, I really felt a bit imprisoned, this trip was for me to come back to life. To live again because it is touching the Church, touching the holy people of God, touching all peoples. A priest becomes a priest to serve, to serve the people of God, not for careerism, not for the money. This morning in the Mass there was the Biblical Reading about the healing of Naaman the Syrian and it said that Naaman wanted to give gifts after he had been healed. But the prophet Elisha refused them. The Bible continues: the prophet Elisha’s assistant, when they had left, settled the prophet well and hurriedly followed Naaman and asked for gifts for him. And God said, “the leprosy that Naaman had will cling to you.” I am afraid that we, men and women of the Church, especially we priests, do not have this gratuitous closeness to the people of God who are the ones who save us. And being like Naaman’s servant: yes, helping, but then going back for the gifts. Of that leprosy I am afraid. And the only one who saves us from the leprosy of covetousness, of pride is the holy people of God. The one God spoke of with David, “I have taken you out of the flock, do not forget the flock.” That of which Paul spoke to Timothy: “Remember your mother and grandmother who nursed you in the faith,” that is, do not lose membership in the people of God to become a privileged caste of consecrated, clerics, whatever. Contact with the people saves us, helps us, we give the Eucharist, the preaching, our service. But they give us belonging. Let us not forget this belonging to the people of God. What did I encounter in Iraq, in Qaraqosh? I didn’t imagine the ruins of Mosul, I really didn’t imagine…. Yes, I may have seen things, I may have read the book, but this touches, it is touching. What touched me the most was the testimony of a mother in Qaraqosh. A priest who truly knows poverty, service, penance, and a woman who lost her son in the first bombings by Isis gave their testimony. She said one word: forgiveness. I was moved. A mother who says: I forgive, I ask forgiveness for them. I was reminded of my trip to Colombia, of that meeting in Villavicencio where so many people, women above all, mothers and brides, told their experience of the murder of their children and husbands. They said, “I forgive, I forgive.” We have lost that word, we know how to insult very well, we know how to condemn, me first. But to forgive…to forgive one’s enemies, that is pure Gospel. That’s what struck me most in Qaraqosh.
I wanted to know how you felt from the helicopter seeing the destroyed city of Mosul and then praying in the ruins of a church. If I may, since it’s Women’s Day, I wanted to ask a little question about women as well. You supported the women in Qaraqosh with very beautiful words, but what do you think about the fact that a Muslim woman in love cannot marry a Christian without being discarded by her family or worse?
“Of Mosul I said a little “en passant” what I felt. I stopped in front of the destroyed church, I had no words. Unbelievable, unbelievable… Not only that church but other churches, even a destroyed mosque. You can tell [the perpetrators] didn’t agree with these people. Unbelievable our human cruelty. Right now, I don’t want to say the word, we are starting again: look at Africa. And with our experience of Mosul these churches destroyed and everything, it creates enmity, war, and also the so-called Islamic State is starting to act again. This is bad, very bad. One question that came to my mind in the church was this: who sells the weapons to these destroyers? Why don’t they make the weapons at home. Yes, they make some explosive devices… But who sells the weapons? Who is responsible? I would at least ask these gun sellers for the honesty to say: we sell guns. They don’t say that. It’s ugly. Now women. Women are braver than men, but that has always been the case. But even today women are humiliated, of you showed me the price list for women (prepared by Isis who were buying Christian and Yazidi women, ed). I couldn’t believe it: if this is what a woman is like, depending on her age, she costs so much… Women are sold, women are enslaved. Even in the center of Rome, the work against trafficking is an everyday job. During the Jubilee I visited one of the many houses of the Opera Don Benzi. Ransomed girls, one with her ear cut off because she hadn’t brought money that day, the other brought from Bratislava in the trunk of a car, a slave, kidnapped. This happens among us, eh! The trafficking of people. In these countries, especially in a part of Africa, there is mutilation as a ritual that must be done. But women are still slaves and we have to fight, struggle, for the dignity of women. They are the ones who carry history forward, this is not an exaggeration, women carry history forward and it is not a compliment because today is Women’s Day. Even slavery is like that, the rejection of women… Just think there are places where there is the debate regarding whether repudiation of a wife should be given in writing or only orally. Not even the right to have the act of repudiation! This is happening today, but to keep us from straying, think of wat happens in the center of Rome, of the girls who are kidnapped and are exploited. I think I have said it all on this. I wish you a good end to your journey and I ask you to pray for me.
(non official working transcript and translation)