After the most superficial measures of the Vatican diplomacy, Pope Francis' recent visit to Iraq was a tremendous success. He strengthened the country's remaining Christian population and continued his efforts to bring the Abrahamic faith together by meeting Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and giving a speech in Ur – the place where Abraham was born. The trip put Iraq back in the headlines for something other than Islamic State, rocket strikes on the US embassy, Iran, refugees or a host of other issues that have rocked the country since the US invasion in 2003. And there was no doubt that the Pope seemed to be getting his mojo back; Like everyone else, he seemed very happy to step out of his house for the first time in a year.
The only controversy came at the meeting in Ur, where there were no Jewish representatives – either because there are so few and therefore difficult to find in Iraq, or because Iraqi officials did not invite them. Even so, the Pope's visit to Iraq was full of positive symbolism and undeniably moving.
The question is what now? The Pope – a Latin word for "bridge builder" – is now back in Rome, and in time the posters and murals that greeted Francis will fade. Iraq's problems will remain. Because of this, analysts tend to treat these types of visits as sideline. You're nice at the moment, but that's about it. Sure, on a previous visit to the Middle East, Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, signed the so-called "Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Coexistence," but there wasn't much fraternity and that Peace in the Middle East in the two years since.
However, this can be overly cynical. There are reasons to believe that continued Vatican attention to the Middle East will do some practical diplomatic good there.
When the Pope arrived in Iraq on March 5th, he gave a speech in which he stated: “How much have we prayed for peace in Iraq during these years! John Paul II spared no initiatives and, above all, offered his prayers and sufferings for this purpose. “The reference to John Paul II was remarkable. Towards the end of the speech. John Paul II was, of course, Pope John Paul II, who led the Catholics of the world from 1978 until his death in 2005. He wanted to visit Iraq in 2000, but the Vatican was unable to reach an agreement with the Iraqi government. Perhaps Saddam Hussein and his advisors were suspicious of John Paul. I am willing to bet that then Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz – a Chaldean Catholic – was aware of the extraordinary role the Pope played in the major foreign policy issues of his day.
John Paul was a critical moral force who encouraged the Polish solidarity movement to face the communist government, which helped catalyze the end of the Cold War. He also supported the reunification of Europe, gave prestige to the struggle against apartheid, and 12 years later opposed both Operation Desert Storm and the US invasion of Iraq. In general, John Paul advocated freedom of expression and human rights in a way that gave those who worked towards these ends political and moral cover to pursue their ends. When he succumbed to flu complications after 27 years, people of all faiths mourned him.
The torch is carried by Francis, who in his own way followed John Paul by giving the Middle East his unique voice. The region is plagued by suffering and its leaders – like those of the external powers – are unable, unwilling or complicit in the conflicts that have killed, wounded and displaced too many people. It seems that Francis has a role to play in finding a way forward in the region, not necessarily in delineating and promoting the religious basis for peace or in a Vatican-led diplomatic initiative, although there may be room for it. It seems that the Pope's power is very much that he does not need a “result”, as it is called in Washington. Rather, Francis' influence resides in the power of his voice to promote change, to fill with courage those who seek peace, and to shame those who use violence to advance their agendas.
In a way, the Pope is already doing this by being the Pope and showing up. However, if Francis' power derives from the appreciation his audiences show him, the sincere welcome he has received across Iraq suggests that he has a particularly strong chance of making a diplomatic difference in the Middle East close.
Nobody should expect the Pope to solve the region's problems, but if he speaks vigorously on certain issues, he can potentially make a difference in both small and big ways. Take Lebanon, for example, a country with an important Christian population that is on the verge of collapse. If Francis addressed the Lebanese people on the issue of corruption, it could help those who have worked both in the street and elsewhere loosen the grip of a notoriously astute political class. Again, the Pope's prestige and the moral strength he brings to any subject are important. Francis advocates and empowers those who want to live in a fairer society by rooting out corruption. Syria can also be a place where Francis can do something good. If he spoke vigorously about how the regime and its supporters targeted hospitals and bombed civilians indiscriminately in Moscow and Tehran, it would potentially force them to think twice about this tactic.
Maybe i'm naive. Corrupt politicians will continue to be persistent and Bashar al-Assad cannot be saved, but it seems that the Pope's moral authority – as the experience of John Paul has made clear – has dynamic implications for politics, diplomacy and the international environment can. Imagine that Francis spoke directly, energetically and consistently about the treatment of Kurdish politicians in Turkey and human rights violations in Egypt. His words could offer political and diplomatic opportunities to clarify where none existed before, if only because Turkish and Egyptian officials would know that the Pope's gaze is on them. The leaders of these countries are shameless and cruel, but it is difficult to defy the Pope.
Of course, there are many reasons for Francis not to do much more than what he has already done in the Middle East. After all, there is much suffering in the world that requires his attention. Investing its prestige, which is its only currency, may not bring any return. and the Vatican is in danger of being drawn into regional policy. During his trip to Iraq, people of all faiths seemed to be inspired by Francis' words and attention. He is an interlocutor who has a lot less baggage and a lot more gravitas than any American, Russian, European or US official. They all failed. Maybe the Pope won't.