Thoughts on John Paul II

BAGHADAD—I have nothing really to add about the death of the Pope. I’m not Catholic. But I do think he did much to modernize the institutions of the papacy, worked tirelessly for the poor and proved you didn’t need armored battalions to battle Communism. However, I disagreed strongly with his positions on abortion, birth control, homosexuality, whether priests can marry and the role of women in the church. However, as I said: I’m not Catholic, so the latter two are not big on my list of concerns.

But there are thousands of Catholics in Iraq, and the death of Pope is affecting them deeply. Already feeling under siege and driven from their native land, the death of a man who tried to bridge the differences of the Abrahamic faiths is yet another blow to be endured.

Today, the mass at St. Joseph for the Syriac Church in Baghdad will be for the Pope, as masses all over the world will be. (The Syriac Catholic church observes eastern rites, and they conduct their mass in Syriac and Arabic, but follow the teachings of Rome, having returned to the fold in 1781. Other Catholics loyal to Rome in Iraq include Roman Catholics and Chaldean-Assyrians.)

I spoke with Father Pious Qasha, the priest at St. Joseph’s, yesterday about the Pope, as he is one of the few Iraqi clergymen to have met the pontiff several times. (The first time was in 1978.)

“He was one of the greatest Popes to come to the Church,” the priest said as he served tea and sweets in his small office. A black and white television was tuned to CNN and he glanced at it as he spoke every few seconds. “He suffered under the Nazis, and he struggled with Communists in Russia and wars between Israel and the Arabs. Also, he was against the war in Iraq.”

This point alone endeared him to thousands of Iraqis—of all religions.

“The most beautiful thing that he did in his life,” Father Qasha continued, “is in each country he visited, whether it was Christian or otherwise, was to kiss the land. It was a sign of love and respect, and he showed love and respect for Islam when he kissed the Holy Qur’an.” (I would link to something about this, but most of the things on Google are from Christians calling john Paul II a sellout or a whore for doing so. I think it was a powerful gesture towards respect for all faiths.)

Father Qasha didn’t want to speculate on the future of the Church in Iraq following the death of John Paul II, because when I spoke with him the Pope was still alive. But Christians of all creeds are leaving because of increased persecution by Muslims angry over the occupation who view the Christians as co-religionists.

But Christians do have allies among Muslims here in Iraq. Two of my staff, both fairly typical Shi’ites, spent two hours last night telling me how sorry they were the Pope was dead, and that they revered him for his piety and respected him for his work in the world. The word “brother” was often used to refer to him. And in my time here in Iraq, I have come across many Muslims who look at Christians as their older brothers, who respect them, who like them and want to protect them. That two Iraqi Muslims, who have suffered wars, sanctions and other ills partly at the hands of a largely Christian superpower, can look beyond all that and still take time to offer consolations to me, a non-Catholic… Well, despite the harm done here in name of God, by Islamic jihadis and—in a different way—Christian soldiers, I think my friends’ concern says a great deal about the appeal of John Paul II, and the role of faith in beating back the darkness of complete barbarity.