Pope Francis is a legendarily bold traveler, including a visit to the Central African Republic in 2015 amid a bloody civil war - even telling the pilot that if it wasn’t safe to land, he’d just take a parachute.
Knowing that history, the newly ordained archbishop of Mosul in Iraq is upping the ante, suggesting he pay a visit to his own conflict-scarred country.
“The pope is an adventurous person, and everybody loves him here, so he should come,” said Najib Mikhael Mousa, the new Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul. He holds the position once occupied by Archbishop Mar Paulos Faraj Rahho, who was kidnapped and killed in 2008, with some locals blaming Al Qaeda and others Kurdish militants.
“… The entire population of Iraq, even the Shia and the Kurdish people, are waiting,” Moussa said. “Security is good now … A little bishop, or a priest, we have no problem moving around, so it would be no problem for the pope to come. He just needs to decide to do so!”
As it happens, Francis may not be the one Moussa needs to persuade. When Crux relayed his request to the pope on Jan. 23 as he was en route to Panama for World Youth Day, Francis said he wants to go but others have been holding him back.
“Yes, but it’s [the bishops] who tell me now is not the moment,” he said, adding with a smile: “Surely, they had a fight among themselves. But that’s why I sent the Secretary of State … I want to go, and in the meantime, I follow the situation closely.”
[Francis was referring to a Christmastime trip to Iraq by Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State and his top diplomatic aide.]
Mousa was ordained by Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Raphael Sako Jan. 18 in Baghdad, and was installed Jan. 25. The ceremony took place in the recently restored church of Saint Paul in Mosul, where Rahho was laid to rest. There were twelve Chaldean bishops, two Syrian Catholics, one Syrian orthodox archbishop and representatives of the local government, together with two Muslim sheikhs “in high regalia.” Security measures were described as “discreet” and the church was standing-room only.
Since “95 percent” of Moussa’s new archdiocese has been destroyed by war, he will remain in the neighboring town of Karamless, in the Nineveh Plains, while he gets “a room” ready to live in.
He spoke with Crux on the phone Jan. 22 about the challenges he faces, what it means to be a bishop who was ordained by a martyr and who succeeds a martyr, and about what the international community can do to help rebuild Iraq.
Asked what he’d like to talk about, Mousa didn’t hesitate: “Pray for us. And don’t forget about us. We’ve never felt like we’re alone, don’t leave us alone now. Since the beginning we’ve felt like we had a brother outside of Iraq, praying for us and helping us. So, thank you.”
What follows are excerpts of Crux’s conversation with Mousa.
Did you know the appointment was coming, and how did you feel?
I was glad to hear about it, because I know Mosul has suffered a lot since 2014. It’s very, very hard to see, feel and also to have hope for the future, because especially Christians at the beginning, but Muslims too, suffered a lot, because ISIS is very, very aggressive.
I think a new archbishop is something that can give hope to everyone, and for me too, to start a new page of our lives.
When you said yes, it was a brave decision …
It’s important to take this decision. I know it’s not very easy, we have many issues, but we should all learn to live together, Christians, Muslims, Yazidis and Kurdish. We must learn to live together, because I believe tomorrow will be better than today.
What are the biggest challenges you’re going to face in the next few years?
I think the biggest challenge is rebuilding the trust of the population. Before rebuilding structures, it’s very important to re-start our confidence with each other and the entire population together, to learn to live and work together, hand in hand, fighting this very dangerous ideology, that is against humanity, not Christians only.
Can you share a bit of your story with us?
I was born in Mosul in 1955, but my origins are from the north of Kurdistan, a little Iraqi village that was next to the Turkish border, but which was destroyed in 1976. I grew up in Mosul, so I understand the mentality of Mosul. I then studied in Baghdad, and did Philosophy and Theology in France.
I was ordained by Bishop Pierre Claverie, who was martyred in Algeria, Oran, in 1996. I’m very happy to have been ordained by him, and also to take the place of another martyr, Paulos Faraj Rahho, a bishop of Mosul, who was killed by Islamist groups that came before ISIS. Being between two martyrs is an honor.
[Note: Rahho was the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul from 2001 until 2008, when he was kidnapped and gunned down.]
But doesn’t it make you afraid to know you’re surrounded by martyrs?
No, it does not make me afraid. It’s an honor, because as bishops we’re called to serve humanity, not only other Christians. I’m here to help the Christians, the Muslims, the Yazidis. A bishop is a servant of Christ and of this world.
We had the opportunity of being in the Nineveh Plains last year, and we were told that there was basically nothing left of Mosul. Where are you going to live?
The ordination was in Baghdad, but since I have no home, no church, no nothing, because Mosul is very much like Kosovo, 95 percent of Mosul was destroyed, as were our churches. I’m trying to repair something, maybe a room where I can live. But in the meantime, I will stay in Karamles, some 15 miles from Mosul. It’s a very simple place, but people are great. And from there, we will slowly rebuild our city, but more importantly, our relationship with each other.
We’ve had enough of this kind of violence, and we really want to rebuild peace, instead of this rage, put an end to this killing of each other. We should start strongly believing that we’re brothers in humanity. Before being Christians or Muslims, we’re humans. We have that in common.
How can the international community help rebuild Mosul?
I think the world needs to be clear about the need to help through assistance, through NGOs: we need money to rebuild schools, universities, hospitals, homes, roads. Most people have lost everything, they have no homes, no nothing. They’re living in Ankawa or some village near Mosul, and they cannot go back if the international community doesn’t help to build and restore their homes.
The pope is going to Panama tomorrow, and a week later, he’s visiting the United Arab Emirates, a Muslim majority country. Do you envision a papal visit to Iraq in the near future?
I hope so … The entire population of Iraq, even the Shia and the Kurdish people are waiting for that. Security is good now … A little bishop, or a priest, we have no problem moving around, so it would be no problem for the pope to come. He just needs to decide to do so! And the pope is an adventurous person, and everybody loves him here, so he should come. When Cardinal Pietro Parolin came here for Christmas, all the people would say, “Viva el papa! Viva el papa!”
They want for the pope to come here, to give us more hope, more strength, and more love for one another. I hope and I pray that he comes. And I also hope that he prays for us, because we need his prayers, he can help us with his prayer and his support for us.
Anything else you’d like to say?
Pray for us. And don’t forget about us. We never feel like we’re alone. Don’t leave us alone now. Since the beginning we’ve felt like we had a brother outside of Iraq, praying for us and helping us. So thank you.