VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Aboard the papal flight back from Iraq, the first papal trip since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Pope Francis addressed criticism of those who have accused him of being “one step away from heresy” in his commitment to promoting human fraternity among the world’s faiths.
“There are some critics who say the pope is not brave but reckless, that he’s taking steps against Catholic doctrine, that he’s one step from heresy,” the pope told journalists on Monday (March 8).
Francis said that his decision to speak with Muslim religious leaders and promote interreligious dialogue is “always made in prayer, in dialogue, asking for advice.” He said that his efforts to mend Christian-Muslim relations, far from being “capricious,” are in keeping with the doctrine laid out by the Second Vatican Council.
Francis became the first Roman pontiff to visit Iraq when he embarked on his March 5-8 apostolic visit. There, he visited its diminishing Christian community and spoke with political and religious representatives from different faith groups and denominations.
On Saturday (March 6), the pope met in Najaf, a holy city to Shia Muslims, with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most prominent Shiite leader. The historic meeting, which lasted roughly 45 minutes, was the first official meeting between a pope and a prominent Shiite representative.
The pope described al-Sistani as “a humble man” who has “wisdom and prudence,” adding that “it was good for my soul to encounter him.” Francis said the meeting was “a duty in his pilgrimage of faith” to promote human fraternity among religions.
It was Francis’ second major outreach to Muslims. In 2019, Francis cosigned a declaration of human fraternity in Cairo, Egypt, with the Muslim Sunni leader Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar.
While the pope and al-Sistani didn’t sign a document, Francis described the encounter as “a second step” in realizing the vision enshrined in his 2020 encyclical “Brothers All.”
Francis’ visit also drew criticism for its apparent disregard for health concerns tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the pope and Vatican citizens have already received the vaccine, Francis has been repeatedly called out for not wearing a mask and told journalists on Monday that he “truly felt in prison” during the lockdown.
“This (trip) for me is like coming back to life, because it means to touch the church, to touch the holy people of God, all the peoples,” he said, defending his decision to travel to Iraq as coming “from inside” and “knowing the risks.”
It was the tragic decimation of the Yazidi ethnic community by the Islamic State group following the 2014 occupation of Northern Iraq that inspired the pope to make the trip, he said. The book “The Last Girl” by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Nadia Murad, which described the suffering of the Yazidi people, “provided the background for the decision,” he said.
On Sunday (March 7), Francis viewed the ruins of mosques and churches in Mosul, the capital of the Islamic State during the occupation. He said he “had no words” after seeing the scale of destruction. “Human cruelty, our cruelty, is impossible to believe,” he added.
The pope also criticized those nations selling weapons, though he didn’t single out any particular country.
The return flight to the Vatican on Monday coincided with International Women’s Day. While speaking in Qaraqosh, a Christian town in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains, on Sunday, the pope asked that women “be shown respect and provided with opportunities.”
“Today, women are humiliated,” Francis told journalists, mentioning atrocities against women that continue to take place today, from human trafficking to genital mutilation. In Africa and in the outskirts of Rome, “women are still slaves, and this is something we have to fight,” he added.
Among the topics addressed by the pope during the trip was the question of the suffering of immigrants, which has been a main focus of this pontificate. Francis met with the father of a 3-year-old boy who died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea. The picture of Alan Kurdi’s body became a symbol of the plight of immigrants and refugees in Europe and beyond.
“Urgent measures are needed so that people can have jobs in their countries so that they don’t need to migrate,” he said. The mass exodus of Iraqi Christians, who left behind ghost cities in search of better opportunities, was among the main reasons the pope made the trip.
He praised Jordan and Lebanon for their welcoming of migrants and refugees, adding that he doesn’t exclude an apostolic visit to Lebanon in the future.