Embracing Hope-filled Hospitality

Dr Steve Cochrane, University of the Nations

This photo shows a Christian monastery, Rabban Hormizd, that for over a thousand years was a place of life and witness. It housed refugees for several months after the ISIS attacks. The modern monastery still functions on the Ninevah Plains below. Credit: Steve Cochrane

The four-day visit of Pope Francis to Iraq in March 2021 was filled with indications of hope, whether in meetings with Christian communities or Muslim leaders. It was the first time in history that a pope had visited Iraq, conveying not only his own desires for a brighter future but the longings of many that have left the region in recent years as well as those remaining. The Christians of Iraq, formerly Mesopotamia, once lived in some of the heartlands of the faith. For the first ten centuries after Christ, hundreds of monasteries dotted especially the northern landscape. These monasteries trained and sent monks across the land and sea trade routes of Asia to India and China in Christian witness. They also participated in Muslim society from the seventh century, translating Greek texts via Syriac into Arabic and serving in a variety of other roles.

The Vatican will not resign itself to a Middle East without Christians.

Pope Francis

The interest of Pope Francis in these Christians and their often-forgotten history is not new. In 2013 the newly elected pope, responding to rising concerns about Christian refugees leaving the Middle East in the wake of persecution, made this comment, The Vatican will not resign itself to a Middle East without Christians’. Since that time, those leaving from areas like Northern Iraq and Syria has only been on the increase.

The following year after the pope’s statement, I was in an area of Northern Iraq that only a few months later came under the control of ISIS after their rapid and devastating advance, causing Christians and Yazidis to flee for their lives and many others killed or taken captive. I saw the Christian monastery, Rabban Hormizd, that for over a thousand years was a place of life and witness. It housed refugees for several months after the ISIS attacks. The modern monastery still functions on the plains below.

Even though ISIS was largely defeated in recent years and places like Mosul are being rebuilt,  concern from the pope and others about these Christians has remained strong. (One of the places that Pope Francis visited and prayed in was Mosul).  This concern has included a desire to see some degree of lasting peace attained and even a possible return for many. It is not only Pope Francis that finds a Middle East without Christians unacceptable. Christians have lived in the Middle East since the first century, a vibrant and influential community for much of that history. It is also not only Christians in other parts of the world that desire to see this stopped and reversed. There are also many Muslims in the Middle East itself that find what is happening abhorrent and desire to work for change.

To think of a Middle East without Christians, or Jews for that matter, is unacceptable and must be resisted and reversed. But also disturbing in recent years is to hear of those in the West, including Christian leaders, that call for a limit or stopping of Muslims coming into the United States. Others have questioned the loyalties or patriotism of the almost 4 million Muslims already in the country. What this creates at times is a paranoia related to Muslim communities in the USA and Europe. Perhaps even a desire on the part of many to see Muslims leaving, though this may not be normally stated openly.

Can we who are Christians also say that we find a USA and Europe without Muslims to be unacceptableas well? We need Muslims in our communities in the West in the same way the Middle East needs Christians and Jews. Why the need for this religious and cultural diversity? Here are three important reasons that Pope Francis has modeled through his words and visit to Iraq.

First, there is a richness of culture and life that different faiths bring to a community and nation. We are impoverished when we draw back within our own walls and communities. We miss the diversity of presence and encounter that comes from mixing with others. That is as true in Cairo and Jerusalem as it is in Seattle or London. How much more deeply that lack of mixing has been felt after a year of living with the lockdowns of the global pandemic of Covid-19.

Secondly, there is an important ministry of hospitality and witness that needs to be extended to others, and we are so much weaker without it. In all three faith traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam there is a strong commitment to hospitality evidenced both in scriptures and practice. This hospitality includes the stranger and refugee as well as the friend and brother. The giving of hospitality is vitally important in our communities today, whether in Baghdad or Berlin. Having those of other faiths for meals or common community events is crucial to build relationships that will resist and endure the propaganda of fear and exclusion.

Thirdly, our common humanity demands that we extend love and mercy to each other, including the commitment to live among those that are different than us. This is easier at times than others and in some places and not others in our world. But it starts with declaring unacceptable the idea that whole parts of the world will be free of a certain faith or community. The visit of the Pope to Iraq has again highlighted the longing for a world that honors the hospitality of faith and the embracing of differences at every level. It is in that hope-filled embracing that the treasures and riches of the other will most beautifully flow.