Sister Beth Murphy with Iraqi Dominican friar Yousif Attisha during the 2010 gathering in Erbil of Dominicans serving in the Arab world. Father Attisha passed in 2019.
Pope Francis announces trip to Iraq, which means an encounter with Dominicans, most likely.
Iraq may be “out of sight-out of mind” for most Americans, but that is not the case for many U.S. Dominicans, including the Springfield Dominican Sisters, who have strong ties to the country through their Iraqi Dominican sisters and brothers.
For Dominicans, it’s especially exciting news that Pope Francis will make Iraq his first international visit in more than a year.
According to the Vatican Press Office Pope Francis will travel March 5-8, 2021, and visit Baghdad, the plain of Ur, the city of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, and Mosul and Qaraqosh in the plain of Nineveh.
“This will be such a joyful, hopeful experience for our Dominican sisters and brothers, for the Dominican laity in Iraq, and for many in Iraq,” said Sister Beth Murphy, whose last trip to the country was in 2010. “It will be balm for their souls—and potentially mark a turning point in strained relationships. The pope doesn’t make a trip like this without careful consideration of his goals.”
There are significant political, social, and religious challenges in each of the regions the pope plans to visit. “The fact that Ur is on the list—home of Abraham and thus cradle of all Abrahamic faiths—suggests there will be an important interfaith component to his visit," said Sister Beth Murphy. "When he visits Nineveh Plain he’ll be in the heart of Christian Iraq and will see first-hand the challenges in a region the Kurds and Iran are struggling to control. In Erbil he’ll encounter the plight of nearly 2 million Iraqis who are still displaced from their homes after the incursion of ISIS in 2014.”
Many millions of Iraqi nationals have also fled Iraq and are refugees around the world. The Iraqi diaspora will be keenly interested in the visit. Sister Beth said.
Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, patriarch of the worldwide Chaldean Catholic Church, sees this displacement as a great challenge to the well-being of the Iraqi church. Because the presence of Christians in the Middle East is threatened, the cardinal said, it would give Christian Iraq "great hope to hear [the pope’s] speeches and his encouragement to remain in our land.”
Iraqi Dominicans serve in Baghdad, Kurdistan, and in the cities and villages of Nineveh Plain and will be happy to welcome Pope Francis, Sister Beth said.
“I’m anxious for Pope Francis to meet our Dominican Sisters, who, against all odds, are creating a sense of normalcy and purpose for thousand of Iraqi youth and families who rely on them for hope and stability,” said Sister Beth Murphy. “I can’t wait for him to see that.”
Pope Francis originally planned to visit Iraq In June of 2019, though the coronavirus pandemic changed his plans. Then he said he hoped that Iraq could “face the future through the peaceful and shared pursuit of the common good on the part of all elements of society, including the religious, and not fall back into hostilities sparked by the simmering conflicts of the regional powers.”
The Pope’s itinerary will be released at a later date, and will “take into consideration the evolution of the worldwide health emergency,” the Vatican says.
The International Crisis Group, an independent organization that seeks to prevent war and create a more peaceful world, notes the challenges facing Iraq, including the consequences of decades of war, crippling sanctions and the ravages caused by the transnational jihadists of Islamic State after 2014. Iraq is also challenged by sectarian violence and Kurdish separatism. Problems can be address with better governance and efforts to mitigate the impact of foreign strategic competition, notably between Iran and the U.S, the group believes. Other issues to be addressed include territorial disputes with Iraqi Kurdistan and the issue of oil revenue-sharing.