OpinionMiddle East

Pope Francis and Part Two of the Abraham Accords

Coming on the heels of Israel’s treaties with several Muslim countries, the meeting between the head of the Vatican and the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites is particularly significant.

Pope Francis. Credit: Alfredo Borba via Wikimedia Commons.
Pope Francis. Credit: Alfredo Borba via Wikimedia Commons.
Fiamma Nirenstein
Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies.

Our father, Abraham, has had a lot on his plate lately—always for the good of humanity, as is his habit. “Lech lecha,” the Creator commanded him, “go from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”

From that time on, the adventure of monotheism began. Unfortunately, the task was left to Abraham’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, whose eternal dispute has relentlessly pursued us to this day.

Pope Francis bravely went to Syria on Friday—to Mosul, Najaf and Ur—where he led a prayer reminding attendees of Abraham’s message: that God is invisible, infinite and very close; full of love towards and demands of man, foremost among them to live in peace.

Peace is a moral attribute of monotheism, the son of Judaism, as well as the founder of what has come to be called the “human spirit,” which includes Christianity and Islam.

Pope Francis’s meeting with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a key spiritual leader of Iraqi Shiite Muslims was significant. After years of atrocities committed against Christians at the hands of ISIS particularly and by political Islam in general, he traveled from Rome to the Middle East to talk to the most suitable of interlocutors among Shiites, who have not only traditionally suffered as a poor minority within the Sunni-majority Islamic world, but today—due to the regime in Tehran—represent the thorniest current issues: imperialism, uranium enrichment and the persecution of minorities.

Yet Sistani is a notable exception. A balanced character, he was born in Iran but significantly distant from his homeland, which is dominated by a group of Khomeinists who, according to Islamic religious law, will become the recognized leaders—only with the coming of the Mahdi, Imam Hussein—of the world’s redemption.

He is a moderate, cautious with politicians, but powerful within his community. He tried to placate the former after the 2003 invasion of Iraq by a combined force of troops from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Poland, while also attempting to contain attacks against Americans. He pushed hard, as well, for the war against ISIS. Moreover, he maintains a relationship with Iran without demonstrating devotion to it.

Pope Francis has studied this situation well. Just as he connected with the Sunnis in 2019—signing the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” (also known as the “Abu Dhabi Declaration”) with the Grand Iman of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb—he has now found the appropriate Shiite partner to help him protect Christians in the name of Abraham.

The Pope’s invoking of Abraham comes on the heels of another historical event: Israel’s signing of the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and subsequent normalization agreements with Sudan and Morocco—Muslim-majority states traditionally hostile to the Jewish state.

Today, he is inspired by the ecumenical father of the three monotheistic religions to design a future of peace in which the Christians of the Middle East who have suffered immensely are included. As he knows full well, in pre-2003 Iraq, there were more than 1.5 million Christians; less than 200,000 remain. The situation is similar in Syria, where the Christian population has dropped from 2 million to less than 700,000, as a result of expulsion and murder by Muslim terrorists.

Though even while repeating Abraham’s name during his visit, the Pope didn’t mention the fact that Jews have also been persecuted by Muslims in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the peaceful tectonic upheaval that brought the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco to accept Israel and the Jewish people as indigenous to the region—is still a train in motion. And it is producing results close to his description of Abraham as one who “knew how to hope against all hope,” and who laid the groundwork for “the human family.”

The revolutionary notion of people’s common interest in the future of their children, as well as for good relations and civil progress exhibited in the Abraham Accords, is a genuine example of how peace must be undertaken: not only between leaders, but among peoples. Indeed, the treaty was immediately welcomed warmly by Jews and Muslims in the countries in question; it was not merely a matter of bureaucracy spurred by calculated cold-blooded interests.

It has been amazing to observe the flurry of contacts between Muslims and Jews that have been developing during the past few months in every field. The passion for the realization of Abraham’s envisioned peace, forbidden for decades by the Palestinian and Iranian veto, is tangible in the enthusiasm brought about by the thousands of trade deals, collaborative scientific efforts and human exchanges, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pope Francis’s sojourn to Iraq illustrates another facet of Abraham’s work in action. We can only hope that the path he has cleared will be equally fruitful. It’s a pity that the Iraqi government ignored the country’s Jews in this context, against Vatican hopes, by not inviting a Jewish delegation to the event. It was a dismissal of Jewish history and expulsion from Muslim countries, along with their synagogues and traditions, by the hundreds of thousands.

During his interreligious prayer for peace in Ur, the Pope thanked the Lord for having given Abraham to Jews, Christians and Muslims, together with other believers. Despite the absence of an official Jewish delegation, there was in attendance their most famous representative, Avraham Avinu (“Our father, Abraham”).

Now, with the solidification of the Abraham pacts, the three religions have the opportunity to march together against the fierce opponents of peace, ranging from ISIS to Al-Qaeda, from Hamas to Hezbollah, and to all the states that support them, first and foremost Iran.

Maybe the Pope’s meeting with and message to al-Sistani indicates that he understands the need to summon Abraham spiritually, the way in which Israel and its peace partners have done through concrete action.

Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

This article was translated from Italian by Amy Rosenthal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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