They say a picture paints a thousand words, and if that’s true the image of Pope Francis at the weekend standing in a bombed-out church in Iraq speaks more powerfully than any of the thousands of column inches that have been and will be written about the trip.
As images go, it would be hard to find one more poignant than Christ’s Vicar in the ruins of Mosul’s Church Square. It stands as proof that love actually does conquer hate, and that the barbarism of the likes of the Islamic State never has the final word.
And yet, as Christians danced and sang out their joy at the visit of Pope Francis, there was not the slightest hint of triumphalism but gentle relief at their delivery from some of the greatest horrors the world has ever seen.
It was fitting that the first visit of Pope Francis since the onset of Covid-19 was to Iraq. As the birthplace of Abraham, it was the perfect setting to reaffirm his constant refrain that we are all members of the one human family. Abraham is father in faith to Jews, Christians and Muslims – what we call the Abrahamic religions.
The Pope’s message was clear: “If God is the God of life – for so he is – then it is wrong for us to kill our brothers and sisters in his name.
“If God is the God of peace – for so he is – then it is wrong for us to wage war in his name.
“If God is the God of love – for so he is – then it is wrong for us to hate our brothers and sisters.”
But, the Pope was speaking not only to religious believers who may be blinded by ideology to kill in the name of their religion. He was speaking to a jaded Western world that too easily swallows the lie that religion is the root of all conflict and that a world without religion would be a world at peace.
The 20th Century alone should be enough to remind us that the exclusion of God and the subsequent relativisation of what is absolute, unleashed terror upon the earth. The nihilism of Islamic State sought to do the same and set communities in the Middle East against one another. The Christians – who have been in Iraq for 1,800 years – have paid a heavy price along with other minorities. But, the visit of Pope Francis also showed to the world that while they may be persecuted they are not forgotten.
The coverage of this papal trip also cast Iraq in a new light. Long a byword for violence and conflict, the Pope’s insistence on universal fraternity means that this land should now be a beacon for tolerance and co-existence.
Amid the rubble and bombed out remains of four churches destroyed by Islamic State militants, Pope Francis held up the martyrs as the model of faithfulness for Christians.
In boldly proclaiming that “The Church in Iraq is alive and Christ is alive and at work in his holy and faithful people” the Holy Father is also offering hope to people living in darkness in troubled parts of the world that the darkness will never overcome the light.
In the midst of pandemic gloom, it is a message we can all benefit from.