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Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq and global health

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This handout photograph released on January 27, 2021 by The Vatican Media shows Pope Francis holding a live streamed weekly private audience in the library of the apostolic palace in The Vatican, during the COVID-19 pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus. (Photo by Handout / VATICAN MEDIA / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE – MANDATORY CREDIT “AFP PHOTO / VATICAN MEDIA” – NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS – DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS


Like sunshine after the rain, Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq-the first papal visit this year and the first of any papal visit to Iraq in its entire history- There were many legitimate odds piled against the visit of this 266th Pontiff to the Middle Eastern country of 40 million predominantly Shi’ite Muslims. These odds are better imagined and not experienced; rocket attacks, suicide bombings, roadside bombings, occasional rumblings from the defeated Islamic State group, sectarian violence, increasing coronavirus infections, predominantly unvaccinated population, a curfew, a lockdown, the Pope’s sciatica and his known respiratory history of only one, full, functioning lung.

However, this Argentine Pope, the first to be ever elected of South American origin has a genuine call for duty that is devoid of personal interests. The 84-year-old former Cardinal gave the world a glimpse of his calling when in 2013, shortly after his election by the Conclave, chose to be named after Saint Francis of Assisi, a saint better known for his work on the poor and neglected in society.

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It has been more than one year since the coronavirus unceremoniously came to reside with humans but we have been able to develop several arsenals against it. While most world leaders are conducting virtual meetings even when some of them had been inoculated with the vaccine, the leader of more than 1.8 billion Catholics, put self-interests aside and traveled to one of the most unstable countries where even the air space is not guaranteed to be safe; biologically, chemically and physically.

In 2020, Iraq ranked 143 on the Human Development Index (HDI), a marked improvement from the 2003 HDI of 174 when Sunni Saddam Hussein was deposed by US-led forces. Iraq’s HDI of 143 is still a far cry from the global average. The United Nations Development Index assesses life expectancy, access to schooling and standard of living. Access to schooling is measured by the number of years of schooling received by a person aged 25 years and above. The standard of living is assessed by the Gross National Income (GNI) per capita. Nigeria actually dropped three places to 161 in the 2020 United Nations HDI. This article is not about Nigeria but about the Pope’s visit to Iraq and its proposed effect on health so I would refrain from analyzing the causes for Nigeria’s ranking in the HDI. Enough has already been said when Iraq ranks higher than Nigeria on the HDI.

The visit of the religious leader to twenty percent of the world’s population, is symbolic to all religions not just to the Christian faithful. In two decades, eighty percent of Christians have either fled from Iraq or have been killed. Since the 2003 U.S. led invasion of Iraq and the 2014-2017 insurgency of the Islamic State group, the number of Christians in Iraq has dwindled to about four hundred thousand. Similarly, Jews have almost disappeared from the land. The Pope’s first-ever visit to Iraq since the pandemic began is at the heart of his message of hope and healing to a country deeply wounded from years of untold hardship and relentless wars.

Importantly, it brought out the optics in this oil rich country, the fourth world producer of oil. His visits touch on healing from sectarian wars, intense discriminations, religious intolerance and vaccination; all the ingredients in a pot pourri that can ultimately lead to decline in global health; poverty, migration, climate change, drought, food insecurity, depression and formation of extremist groups. The relevance of the Pope’s visit should not be swept away under the religious carpet but must be seen also as an effector of global health. In 2016, a papal document written by the present Pope; the “Laudato Si” discussed the extent of consumerism and climate change. This document is in sync with the Paris Climate Accord.

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Before the pandemic, the Pope had visited Sunni dominated countries like Bangladesh, Morocco, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. Although the predominant group in Iraq is Shi’ite, Saddam Hussein was of Sunni extraction. After his death, the Sunni Al-Qaeda insurgents from Iraq later gave room to the Islamic State and several other such groups. Although, their hold seems to be abating, their seismic effect is still felt all over the world and Nigeria is not an exception.

In 2000, when the late Pope John Paul II attempted to visit Iraq, the trip had to be scuttled. It was during the despotic reign of Saddam Hussein. The late Pope made a virtual visit instead. In the Middle East, the Shi’ite led Iran and Sunni led Saudi Arabia are in a constant tussle for dominance. Unsurprisingly, Shi’ite led Iraq finds an ally in Shi’ite dominant Iran. In January 2020, Iranian Commander Qasem Soleiman and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis a long time Iraqi leader of the militia were neutralized by US led targeted drone attacks. Iran declared three days of mourning after their deaths. A little over a year after their demise, large pictures of these two can still be seen all over bill boards in Iraq. Some of these photos have now been replaced with a welcome photo of the Pope and some replaced with photos of the Pope and the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.

Since the Pope arrived in Iraq, he has visited the church where 58 people were killed in 2011. The self-described “Pilgrim of Peace” visited the 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah in Najab, Iraq. The symbolic meeting between the two leaders is deep. The reclusive Grand Ayatollah shuns publicity but wields great influence over the Shi’ite Muslims. However, he agreed to meet with the Pope, a rare concession. Their meeting lasted for about an hour. The Shi’ite leader admonished that the people of other religions in the dominant Shi’ite led country deserve full constitutional rights as Iraqi citizens. The import of the Grand Ayatollah’s words cannot be over emphasized in this war ravaged country. Before now, the two religious leaders have both been separately proposed as nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize but Pope Francis declared he was more interested in global peace.

The Pope also made a stopover in Ur, the birthplace of Father Abraham, a significant figure for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Christians are not the only religious minority in Iraq. The Yazidis are another minority group decimated by the Islamic State group. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria declared that the Islamic State group committed genocide against the Yazidis. The terrorist group had Mosul, a major city in Iraq as their capital. The Pope will also visit Mosul. At the height of its rule of terror, the group had captured more than 34,000 square miles of lands in Syria and Iraq.

The Pope’s visit also has a message to the antivaxxers. Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict aged 93 were both vaccinated in January. All those that traveled with the Pope had also been vaccinated. Without the vaccinations, it would have been difficult to convince the Holy See to allow the Pope travel out of the Vatican. Religious bodies have made a call for their followers to abstain from taking vaccines that are linked to cell lines from aborted fetuses even though they are remotely linked. These organisations have doubled down and said their followers can take such vaccines if they have no other option of vaccines. Pope Francis said those against vaccination were in a “suicidal denial.”

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From all I have said above how does the Pope’s visit affect global health? Take a look at Yemen. A quick look would give you the precarious, heart breaking picture of human misery caused by years of wars and sectarian violence. The Yemeni war emanated from the Arab Spring movement but soon ended up as wars between Sunni-led Saudia Arabia and Shi’ite led Iran. Until Biden took office, the USA supplied arms to Saudia Arabia thereby aiding in the Yemeni war. As with any war, the women and children suffer most. Recently, there was a backlash when the United Kingdom proposed slashing aid funds meant for Yemen.

Pope Francis, clearly limping from his sciatia and sporting a mask on and off walked comfortably amongst obviously elated, overjoyed, partially masked crowds. Iraq has been recording four thousand new coronaviruses cases per day. It just got a modest dose of vaccines that were donated by China. If after the Pope’s visit, the optics has brought more foreign aid to Iraq, the Grand Ayatollah’s admonishing for all Iraqis to be allowed to live within their constitutional rights regardless of religion, Christians and people of other less dominant faiths can live without persecution, many untold wars would have been averted. The Pope’s visit would have been an investment that keeps on giving in prevention of religious extremism, unsafe migration, depression and other psychological disorders. The resources used in fixing battle scars on infrastructure and human resources can be diverted to other progressive uses. Most of the conflicts around the world are religious based even if they didn’t start off from a religious point, they end up as one. If Pope’s visit has healed hearts, sown the seeds of interfaith healing, encouraged Christians and non- Christians alike, emblemed selflessness, neigbourliness, love, and Iraq is actually in the news for all the right reasons and not for war-inciting platitudes, then it’s all good. After all, the first verse in the thirteenth chapter of the Book of Hebrews, says, “Let brotherly love continue.” The former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, turned Pope Francis has done just that.
Obilade, Associate Professor of Public Health at Nile University of Nigeria, Abuja.

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