Pope Francis visited Iraq last week in what is said to have been the first trip of its kind. It came at a time of exceptionally difficult circumstances which Iraq has been going through since the 2003 US invasion, with ongoing unrest and killing. And with Daesh remnants still on the scene, it took what looked like the whole Iraqi Army to protect the head of the Catholic Church, alongside 200 police officers and US Special Forces. A no-flying zone was imposed across Iraq and the city of Najaf was closed as the Pope visited the most senior Shia cleric in the country, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. According to initial estimates, the visit cost the Iraqi treasury millions of dollars while many citizens are poverty-stricken.
The Iraqi regime received the Pope with great cordiality; the welcoming committee included the president, the prime minister, and all of the government ministers and state officials. It was an impressive reception, albeit over the top, the likes of which the Pope had not received in any country. What was the regime thinking about? What was it trying to prove?
The Pope apparently cancelled a trip to South America in order to go to Iraq, which makes me wonder what he hoped to get out of it. It was certainly not just to pray for Iraqi Christians, of whom there are just 400,000 in the country, most having emigrated after the US invasion.
It is also certain that he was carrying political messages from a specific country, in addition to the messages for media consumption in his speech last Friday and during the three masses, he held. He repeated the words of the popes before him about the spirit of love and peace amongst all human beings. However, he also said something that the popes before him did not dare to say; that Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all children of Abraham. This is the first time that a Catholic Pope has acknowledged Islam as a divine religion. His predecessors had considered Muslims to be followers of the teachings of a righteous man, Muhammad, who wrote the scripture himself but did not receive divine revelation.
Pope Francis has become accustomed to playing the role of mediator since he assumed the papacy. He helped to restore diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba and has been involved in the refugee crises in Europe and America. Fortune magazine ranked him in the list of the world's 50 greatest leaders, while Forbes ranked him the fourth most powerful man in the world.
What does the fourth most powerful person in the world want from a country that was once the capital of the Muslim world and thus the most powerful country in the world? A country which the Vatican feared so much that it would refrain from ringing church bells when Muslim ships were in sight so as not to provoke them.
What does the Pope want from the state of Iraq that was destroyed by the US invasion, which displaced millions of its people and plundered its wealth and heritage? Why didn't he condemn the invasion while he was in the heart of Iraq?
What really baffles me in all of this is the Iraqi regime, with its excessive hospitality. Does it expect the Pope to grant it a certificate of good conduct and behaviour for all the massacres within its territory over the past eighteen years? It is clear that the regime viewed this visit as recognition of itself and its hateful sectarianism, thus giving it the nod to increase its repression of the Iraqi revolution that erupted more than a year ago.
Perhaps the message carried by Pope Francis was intended for Iran. His visit to Najaf and meeting with Sistani, the supreme Shia authority in Iraq, is an acknowledgment of the ayatollah's significance and religious symbolism, which has enabled him to play a decisive political role in state affairs.
Paul Bremer was the man appointed by Washington to govern Iraq after the invasion and the fall of Baghdad. In his book My Year in Iraq he explains America's desire to maintain support for the Shia and Sistani and to exclude the Shia forces allied with Iran. Sistani's role within the Shia community is similar to that of the Pope's for the Catholics; he does not manage daily political affairs, but he exercises his influence through private discussions with loyal followers and issues authoritative religious opinions.
This is a fact. Since 2003, Sistani has played an important role and enabled the Iraqi Shia to have the upper hand in government through his insistence on writing the constitution through an elected assembly and introducing the application of Islamic law in the constitution, so that the Shia get the lion's share. There are many examples of Sistani's political role in Iraq, just one of which is that it was he who forced Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi to submit his resignation last year after the revolution against him and the death of protesters.
It is thus reasonable to say that Sistani has helped to shape politics in Iraq, with a major impact on the politicians and people, as well as the course of affairs in the country. This is well known and is acknowledged by Bremer.
Why, then, did Pope Francis began his visit to Iraq with a visit to Sistani? It could only have been because of his political standing and to deliver a message from another country. Possibly even from the US, although we cannot be sure. What was the message, and what is being asked of Iraq? Or is Baghdad being threatened, given that the Pope's visit was encouraged by Washington after two attacks on US forces in Iraq in less than two weeks?
I also wonder what Iran's position will be about this rather suspicious visit. Tehran basically controls Iraq and sees it as more or less a province of the Islamic Republic.
There are too many questions surrounding this whole issue. We can, perhaps, expect some answers in the days to come.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.