The Pope’s visit to Kurdistan

The Pope travelled to Iraq and the Autonomous Region Kurdistan in the north of the country visiting Baghdad, Mosul and the Kurdish capital Erbil amongst others. The city of Mosul is still destroyed in most areas. It is controlled by Shia militias who get their orders from Iran. Every ordinary person needs their permission to move. Baghdad has been rebuilt since the last war, but tanks and air defence are still present. The Kurdish city Erbil flourished after the fall of former dictator Saddam Hussein. It is peaceful and generally very safe but there has been a rocket attack on the airbase of the US-led coalition recently. Yet, the city recovered from it within just a day.

Erbil awaits the Pope

Three cities that could barely be more different show nicely which three powers are competing for power over this deeply divided country. The Pope’s visit is giving reason for hope, especially in regard of the country’s violent past. He shall bring peace and security- even if just in the minds of the people and not for the whole country immediately. 

Through many talks it becomes clear how important this event is for millions of people. Not only for Christians and Catholics respectively. On the other hand, everyone holding power, including the Shia militias, declared to let the weapons rest given this special occasion. Not only did this declaration come as a surprise- its adherence is even more striking. 

Peaceful coexistence as tradition

The ruin of the synagogue in Barzan

Already prior to the Pope’s visit everybody was excited. The Pope, an important and powerful figure, visits Iraq and Kurdistan. That was important to many people. Not only seeing Baghdad but also the area of the country which has its own government, language and army, and which for a long time offers protection for religious minorities. The coexistence is so important as there is a specially devoted ministry for this matter, the “ministry of endowment and religious affairs“. The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims. Shia Muslims, Alevi, Yazidi, Kaka’i, Zoroastrians, Jews and other Christian denominations. All have their religious sites, all can practice their religion and it is uncommon to make fun of someone’s religious dress, customs or names. The peaceful coexistence of so many religions is deeply rooted in the society. Centuries ago in Barzan, seven groups founded the Barzani federation which was created to ensure the peaceful coexistence. Today in Barzan the ruins of a synagogue, a church and a mosque can be found right next to each other. 

Children playing in the camp close to the Syrian border

For weeks, people were excited for the Pope’s visit regardless of one’s own religion. An important person is taking his time to visit the region. When Angeline Jolie visited refugee camps some years ago nobody cared to mention that they did not like her movies. 

Even in the far away refugee camps, the visit was important. Close to the Syrian border, Xoxe, a 25-year old Yazidi woman told me: “We will watch the visit on television. It is nice to see such an important person visiting. I hope it will help the region. The world keeps forgetting us again and again and maybe this will help to get them care. It won’t hurt. I am happy for the Christians- it must be an extraordinary event for them”. The dialogue with a young boy a couple metres away took a different turn. Regarding my question what he thinks of the Pope’s visit, he just said: “Who? A friend of yours? I can ask my mother if he can stay at our place”.

The mother was slightly uncomfortable with her son’s answer. But why should she be? Actually, how many Germans know who Bavê Şêx is? On the other hand, it shows how hospitable the people are. The first thing that came to this boy`s mind is to offer a place to sleep to a stranger whereas he himself spent his whole life in a refugee camp and hardly experienced any hospitality from the rest of the world. The roads from the Syrian border to the capital Erbil are decorated with signs welcoming the Pope. Even though he will never see them, people just want to express their sympathy. 

The Christian Community

In Erbil’s Christian quarter you first recognize churches and shops offering alcohol. The sale of alcohol is generally not forbidden but there are not enough buyers in other quarters to make a profitable business. In the Christian quarter there are more people who enjoy a good Rioja or Tannenzäpfle-beer. Also many international organisations have their offices here. 

Step-by-step roads and buildings were getting decorated. Up to 30-metre-long banners greeting the Pope hung from Erbil’s skyscrapers, billboards on the streets showed the Pope and called for peace and coexistence, Christian facilities organised other Christians’ visits. 

The Catholic University in Erbil was used for the accreditation of the visitors in the stadium. Young volunteers speaking English, offering food and beverages and even a place to stay for the night before you even get to introduce yourself. The question of one’s own religion or church is never asked.

“We are really busy for months, but it is also a lot of fun. The team is great, the people are happy and everything is going well. For us, this is the most important moment of our life. Unique. Whereby the term “unique” is so worn out these days. We really mean unique”, tells me Jyhan, one of the many volunteers on site.

The stadium

The big event for which ten thousand guests were invited took place in the Franso-Hariri-Stadium in Erbil which normally hosts soccer matches. For journalists the day began early with many security checks- very diligently, to my surprise. You had to switch on every single electrical device to prove that it was not a mockup with a bomb. They even searched people’s wallets for knives. Everybody had a pat down. The pizza was allowed in but had to be pushed through the metal detector. About one hundred local and foreign journalists were escorted in a bus through the city to then cover the Pope’s visit from two platforms on the grass. Three identically looking helicopters with gunmen protected the stadium from above. On the ground, it was guarded by the Peshmerga anti-terrorism-units- a rarely big array. The last of this kind was arranged for the President’s speech regarding the Kurdistan referendum 2017.

The briefing by the Vatican was rather short: “take pictures of whatever you want but behave respectfully! But you should know that”- it is a lot easier here than in Germany. Usually people are happy to get their pictures taken, even if they do not know by whom or for what purpose. In the stadium, there were not only Christians but also Yazidi and Kaka’i. “This is a historic moment and my neighbour wanted to attend. But since he is turning 90 this year, he is not that light on his feet anymore. So I drove and accompanied him”, recounts a Kaka’i man and points to the person next to him. “But I will not get a blessing. Who knows if hell breaks lose with the Christians then”, he jokes. Such jokes are no problem at all. 

The event is mainly organised by volunteers. They are young, well-educated and speak English very well. All of them are obliging and cheerful. 

“This is the most important in our life. This is the country of Abraham and the Pope is visiting for the first time. And we get to experience this moment ourselves. He is sending such a strong message of hope and peace to the whole world”, says a deeply moved woman.

Especially the words “hope” and “peace” are mentioned frequently. These are not just empty phrases but the most important wishes of the people here. On the side of the court, there is a group of volunteers enjoying a break. “You look like you’re on fire! Come over here and have a cold Coke in the shade so you can cool down”, one says and invites me over to his group. After many hours in the blistering heat this offer is not simply a tin can but a much needed oasis in the heat of a seemingly never-ending desert. We start to talk about all these issues. Why are peace and hope so important here and just empty words in the European Union?

“Did you lose family and friends in your life? Not because of age or a car accident. But because of war, terror or the like?”. Indeed, I have. Many. Probably more than a dozen. But all in Rwanda or Kurdistan. Not one in the EU. “This is exactly what I mean. How could the ordinary person understand this suffering? I do not mean this in a derogatory manner. They simply don’t get it. Many even make fun of the Pope’s visit to us. I don’t understand what they get from that?”. I have to agree with him again. 

Every second comment under my social media posts reads “hahaha ‘pope in Kurdistan’ wie popeln! Hahaha Popeln! Verstehst du?” which needs German language to make sense – since the letter ‘i’ and ‘l’ look similar – but translates to “hahaha ‘pope in’” looks like “popeln” which is German for “picking your nose”. I felt deeply ashamed to see that this is all that came to peoples’ minds and they even found the audacity to contribute this message to such a historic event. Others commented on the picture of the monk that he resembles mass murderer Osama bin Laden. People assume of themselves that they are smart and cosmopolitan. So smart they make fun of beliefs they do not understand and so cosmopolitan that not only their first assumption of a person with a beard is that he must be a terrorist, they not even hesitate to comment that openly. The inability to grasp the world outside the European Union is a privilege only a few people enjoy. 

“I have no idea why they are like that and I am beyond sorry”, I explain to the group. “May I ask if you have lost people? Presumably through Anfal (Saddams program for the annihilation of the Kurds) or the so-called Islamic State (IS)?”. Everyone raises their hand- some both, and one even his foot. “IS, Anfal and Barzani-Anfal”, he recounts. Loosing family members three times since the fall of the Berlin Wall. “Also, some of your direct family, like parents or siblings?”, I ask. Everyone looks confused. “Yes, we were talking about just that. If you count in all the others as well, then the whole stadium would raise their hand. This is exactly why we want peace. No more funerals of our siblings. No more helping cousins because their father was shot. The faith and our community help us. Just sticking together. Speaking openly about problems. Being strong”. I always remember how hard I find it to speak to people in Germany about their thoughts, hopes and problems. Everything that exceeds gangster rap, picking your nose or top models seems to go beyond most peoples mental capability. Education in Kurdistan is worse compared to Germany but the respect towards others and the ability to have a conversation is better. 

“But these times are over now. The sun is shining. We are having cold drinks. We are looking towards the future. She is studying petrol engineering- how to dig out compressed dinosaurs-, he is an English teacher and he is studying aerospace engineering and wants to work for the European Space Agency (ESA). Looking ahead, going on.“ I thank them for our conversation and continue my work.

A group of elder nuns is dancing and singing and invites me to join in. One of the very few things that I kindly reject because of my lack of tact that I would not be able to excuse. But they also do not go on forever and ask me what I am doing here and where I am from. They are excited to see so many “young” people like me and that so many journalists are covering the visit. “God’s word should reach everyone”. I explain to them that I unfortunately will not be able to share that. I am involved with religion and faith but not churches in particular. The women belong to a group called “peacemaker” based on the notion of the ones who bring peace in the Bible. They travel the world and try to ameliorate the life of the people. Some of them have seen more than 50 countries and some travel up to this day. They are involved in different projects financed by direct donations. Mostly they are involved in education which is often characterized by Christian influence. For example, they learn to read by studying the Bible. But in the end, everyone can read and maybe God’s word reached a couple new people. A situation benefiting everybody.

The Pope arrives

When the Pope reaches the stadium with his popemobile, people jump from their seats. They shout, scream, sing, wave with flags and take pictures. The Pope waves back routinely. He passes me by just a couple metres away. We are only separated through a temporary, one-meter high fence with passages. From the court people can partly go to him directly. The only visible soldiers in the stadium are unarmed Polish soldiers, who are visitors. You can see bodyguards and policemen here and there. That is it. But nobody dares to cause trouble. No critic throws a bottle, nobody presents his presumably funny anti-church-banner. Anybody who did not want to see the Pope simply stayed home.

The Pope is giving his service in various languages and is supported by other clerics. The peoples’ faces convey how deeply moved and happy they are and how much hope and power this visit means to them. And this is what all this is about. Not, whether you like the Pope or his function, whether you are Christian or in a church. It is about giving peace and hope to people in a region that has been heavily affected by war. 

Through his presence alone, the Pope already succeeded in terrorists promising and obliging a ceasefire. So why not hope for continuing peace?