Full text: Pope Francis’ in-flight press conference from Iraq

Pope Francis speaks during an in-flight press conference en route from Rome to Iraq 8 March 2021. Caption: Colm Flynn/CNA.

Please read below for CNA’s full transcript of Pope Francis’ in-flight press conference from Baghdad, Iraq, to Rome, Italy on 8 March 2021.

Pope Francis: First of all, thank you for your work, your company, your fatigue. Then, today is Women’s Day. Congratulations to the women. Women’s Day. But they were saying why is there no Men’s Day? Even when [I was] in the meeting with the wife of the president. I said it was because us men are always celebrated and we want to celebrate women. And the wife of the president spoke well about women, she told me lovely things today, about that strength that women have to carry forward life, history, the family, many things. Congratulations to everyone. And third, today is the birthday of the COPE journalist. Or the other day. Where are you?

Matteo Bruni, Holy See press office director: It was yesterday.

Pope Francis: Best wishes and we should celebrate it, right? We will see how we can [do it] here. Very well. Now, the word is yours. 

Bruni: The first question comes from the Arabic world: Imad Atrach of Sky News Arabia.

Imad Abdul Karim Atrach (Sky News Arabia): Holiness, two years ago in Abu Dhabi there was the meeting with the Imam al-Tayyeb of al-Azhar and the signing of the document on human fraternity. Three days ago you met with al-Sistani. Are you thinking to something similar with the Shiite side of Islam? And then a second thing about Lebanon, which St. John Paul II said is more than a country, it is a message. This message, unfortunately, as a Lebanese, I tell you that this message is now disappearing. Can we think a future visit by you to Lebanon is imminent?

Pope Francis: The Abu Dhabi document of February 4 was prepared with the grand imam in secret during six months, praying, reflecting, correcting the text. It was, I will say, a little assuming but take it as a presumption, a first step of what you ask me about.

Let’s say that this [Ed. meeting with al-Sistani] would be the second [step] and there will be others. It is important, the journey of fraternity. Then, the two documents. The Abu Dhabi one created a concern for fraternity in me, Fratelli tutti came out, which has given a lot. We must… both documents must be studied because they go in the same direction, they are seeking fraternity. 

Ayatollah al-Sistani has a phrase which I expect to remember well. Every man… men are either brothers for religion or equals for creation. And fraternity is equality, but beneath equality we cannot go. I believe it is also a cultural path.

We Christians think about the Thirty Years’ War. The night of St. Bartholomew [Ed. St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre], to give an example. Think about this. How the mentality has changed among us, because our faith makes us discover that this is it: the revelation of Jesus is love, charity, and it leads us to this. But how many centuries [will it take] to implement it? This is an important thing, human fraternity. That as men we are all brothers and we must move forward with other religions. 

The [Second] Vatican Council took a big step forward in [interreligious dialogue], also the later constitution, the council for Christian unity, and the council for religious dialogue — Cardinal Ayuso accompanies us today — and you are human, you are a child of God and you are my brother, period. This would be the biggest indication. And many times you have to take risks to take this step. You know that there are some critics who [say] “the pope is not courageous, he is an idiot who is taking steps against Catholic doctrine, which is a heretical step.” There are risks. But these decisions are always made in prayer, in dialogue, asking for advice, in reflection. They are not a whim and they are also the line that the [Second Vatican] Council has taught us. This is his first question.

The second: Lebanon is a message. Lebanon is suffering. Lebanon is more than a balance. It has the weakness of the diversity which some are still not reconciled to, but it has the strength of the great people reconciled like the fortress of the cedars. Patriarch Rai asked me to please make a stop in Beirut on this trip, but it seemed somewhat too little to me: A crumb in front of a problem in a country that suffers like Lebanon. I wrote a letter and promised to make a trip to Lebanon. But Lebanon at the moment is in crisis, but in crisis — I do not want to offend — but in a crisis of life. Lebanon is so generous in welcoming refugees. This is a second trip.

Bruni: Thank you, Your Holiness. The second question comes from Johannes Neudecker of the German news agency Dpa.

Johannes Neudecker (Deutsche Presse-Agentur): Thank you, Holy Father. My question is also about the meeting with al-Sistani. In what measure was the meeting with al-Sistani also a message to the religious leaders of Iran?

Pope Francis: I believe it was a universal message. I felt the duty of this pilgrimage of faith and penance to go and find a great man, a wise man, a man of God. And just listening to him you perceived this. And speaking of messages, I will say: It is a message for everyone, it is a message for everyone. And he is a person who has that wisdom and also prudence… he told me that for 10 years, “I do not receive people who come to visit me with also other political or cultural aims, no… only for religious [purposes].” And he was very respectful, very respectful in the meeting. I felt very honored; he never gets up even to greet people. He got up to greet me twice. A humble and wise man. This meeting did my soul good. He is a light. These wisemen are everywhere because God’s wisdom has been spread all over the world.

It also happens the same with the saints, who are not only those who are on the altars, they are the everyday saints, the ones I call “next-door saints.” Men and women who live their faith, whatever it may be, with coherence. Who live human values with coherence, fraternity with coherence. I believe that we should discover these people, highlight them, because there are so many examples. When there are scandals in the Church, many, this does not help, but we show the people seeking the path of fraternity. The saints next door. And we will find the people of our family, for sure. For sure a few grandpas, a few grandmas.

Eva Fernandez (Radio COPE): Holy Father, it is great to resume the press conferences again. It is very good. My apologies, but my colleagues have asked me to ask this question in Spanish. 

[In Spanish] During these days your trip to Iraq has had a great impact throughout the world. Do you think that this could be the trip of your pontificate? And also, it has been said that it was the most dangerous. Have you been afraid at some point during this trip? And soon we will return to travel and you, who are about to complete the eighth year of your pontificate, do you still think it will be a short [pontificate]? And the big question always for the Holy Father, will you ever return to Argentina? Will Spain still have hope that one day the pope will visit?

Pope Francis: Thank you, Eva, and I made you celebrate your birthday twice — once in advance and another belated.

I start with the last question, which is a question that I understand. It is because of that book by my friend, the journalist and doctor, Nelson Castro. He wrote a book on [the history of] presidents’ illnesses, and I once told him, already in Rome, “But you have to do one on the diseases of the popes because it will be interesting to know the health issues of the popes — at least of some who are more recent.” 

He started [writing] again, and he interviewed me. The book came out. They tell me it is good, but I have not seen it. But he asked me a question: “If you resign” — well, if I will die or if I will resign — “If you resign, will you return to Argentina or will you stay here?”

I said: “I will not go back to Argentina.” This is what I have said, but I will stay here in my diocese. But in that case, this goes together with the question: When will I visit Argentina? And why have I not gone there? I always answer a little ironically: “I spent 76 years in Argentina, that’s enough, isn’t it?”

But there is one thing. I do not know why, but it has not been said. A trip to Argentina was planned for November 2017 and work began. It was Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. This was at the end of November. But then at that time there was an election campaign happening in Chile because on that day in December the successor of Michelle Bachelet was elected. I had to go before the government changed, I could not go [further]. 

So let us do this: Go to Chile in January. And then in January it was not possible to go to Argentina and Uruguay because January is like our August here, it is July and August in both countries. Thinking about it, the suggestion was made: Why not include Peru, because Peru was bypassed during the trip to Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, and remained apart. And from this was born the January trip between Chile and Peru. 

But this is what I want to say so that you do not create fantasies of “patriaphobia.” When there are opportunities, it must be done, right? Because there is Argentina and Uruguay and the south of Brazil, which are a very great cultural composition.

About my travels: I make a decision about my trips by listening. The invitations are many. I listen to the advice of the counselors and also to the people. Sometimes someone comes and says: What do you think? Should I go or not? And it is good for me to listen. And this helps me to make the decision later. 

I listen to the counselors and in the end I pray. I pray and I think a lot. I have reflected a lot about some trips, and then the decision comes from within. It is almost spontaneous, but like a ripe fruit. It is a long way, isn’t it? Some are more difficult, some are easier, and the decision about this trip comes early.

The first invitation of the ambassador, first, that pediatrician doctor who was the ambassador of Iraq, very good. She persisted. And then came the ambassador to Italy who is a woman of battle. Then the new ambassador to the Vatican came and fought. Soon the president came. All these things stayed with me. 

But there is one thing behind my decision that I would like to mention. One of you gave me a Spanish edition [of the book] “The Last Girl.” I have read it in Italian, then I gave it to Elisabetta Piqué to read. Did you read it? More or less it is the story of the Yazidis. And Nadia Murad tells about terrifying things. I recommend that you read it. In some places it may seem heavy, but for me this was the trasfondo of God, the underlying reason for my decision. That book worked inside me. And also when I listened to Nadia who came to tell me terrible things. Then, with the book… All these things together made the decision; thinking about all the many issues. But finally the decision came and I took it. 

And, about the eighth year of my pontificate. Should I do this? [He crosses his fingers.] I do not know if my travel will slow down or not. I only confess that on this trip I felt much more tired than on the others. The 84 [years] do not come alone, it is a consequence. But we will see. 

Now I will have to go to Hungary for the final Mass of the Eucharistic Congress, not a visit to the country, but just for the Mass. But Budapest is a two-hour drive from Bratislava, why not make a visit to Slovakia? I do not know. That is how they are thinking. Excuse me. Thank you.

Bruni: Thank you, Eva. Now the next question is from Chico Harlan of the Washington Post.

Chico Harlan (Washington Post): Thank you, Holy Father. I will ask my question in English with the help of Matteo. [In English] This trip obviously had extraordinary meaning for the people who got to see you, but it did also lead to events that caused conditions conducive to spreading the virus. In particular, unvaccinated people packed together singing. So as you weigh the trip, the thought that went into it and what it will mean, do you worry that the people who came to see you could also get sick or even die. Can you explain that reflection and calculation. Thank you.

Pope Francis: As I said recently, the trips are cooked over time in my conscience. And this is one of the [thoughts] that came to me most, “maybe, maybe.” I thought a lot, I prayed a lot about this. And in the end I freely made the decision. But that came from within. I said: “The one who allows me to decide this way will look after the people.” And so I made the decision like this but after prayer and after awareness of the risks, after all.

Bruni: The next question comes from Philippine de Saint-Pierre of the French press.

Philippine de Saint-Pierre (KTO): Your Holiness, we have seen the courage and dynamism of Iraqi Christians. We have also seen the challenges they face: the threat of Islamist violence, the exodus of Christians, and the witnesss of the faith in their environment. These are the challenges facing Christians through the region. We spoke about Lebanon, but also Syria, the Holy Land, etc. The synod for the Middle East took place 10 years ago but its development was interrupted with the attack on the Baghdad cathedral. Are you thinking about organizing something for the entire Middle East, be it a regional synod or any other initiative?

Pope Francis: I’m not thinking about a synod. Initiatives, yes — I am open to many. But a synod never came to mind. You planted the first seed, let’s see what will happen. The life of Christians in Iraq is an afflicted life, but not only for Christians. I came to talk about Yazidis and other religions that did not submit to the power of Daesh. And this, I don’t know why, gave them a very great strength. But there is a problem, like you said, with emigration. Yesterday, as we drove from Qaraqosh to Erbil, there were lots of young people and the age level was low, low, low. Lots of young people. And the question someone asked me: But these young people, what is their future? Where will they go? Many will have to leave the country, many. Before leaving for the trip the other day, on Friday, 12 Iraqi refugees came to say goodbye to me. One had a prosthetic leg because he had escaped under a truck and had an accident… so many escaped. Migration is a double right. The right to not emigrate and the right to emigrate. But these people do not have either of the two. Because they cannot not emigrate, they do not know how to do it. And they cannot emigrate because the world squashes the consciousness that migration is a human right.

The other day — I’ll go back to the migration question — an Italian sociologist told me, speaking about the demographic winter in Italy: “But within 40 years we will have to import foreigners to work and pay pension taxes.” You French are smarter, you have advanced 10 years with the family support law and your level of growth is very large.

But immigration is experienced as an invasion. Because he asked, yesterday I wanted to receive Alan Kurdi’s father after Mass. This child is a symbol for them. Alan Kurdi is a symbol, for which I gave a sculpture to FAO [the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations]. It is a symbol that goes beyond a child who died in migration. He is a symbol of dying civilizations, which cannot survive. A symbol of humanity. Urgent measures are needed so that people have work in their place and do not have to emigrate. And also measures to safeguard the right to emigrate. It is true that every country must study well the ability to receive [immigrants], because it is not only about receiving them and leaving them on the beach. Receive them, accompany them, help them progress, and integrate them. The integration of immigrants is key. 

Two anecdotes: Zaventem, in Belgium: the terrorists were Belgians, born in Belgium, but from ghettoized, non-integrated Islamic immigrants. Another example: when I went to Sweden, during the farewell ceremony, there was the minister, of what I don’t know, [Ed. Alice Bah-Kuhnke, Swedish Minister of Culture and Democracy from 2014 to 2019], she was very young, and she had a distinctive appearance, not typical of Swedes. She was the daughter of a migrant and a Swede, and so well integrated that she became minister [of culture]. Looking at these two things, they make you think a lot, a lot, a lot.

I would like to thank the generous countries. The countries that receive migrants, Lebanon. Lebanon was generous with emigrants. There are two million Syrians there, I think. And Jordan — unfortunately, we will not pass over Jordan because the king is very nice, King Abdullah wanted to pay us a tribute with the planes in passage. I will thank him now — Jordan has been very generous [with] more than one and a half million migrants, also many other countries… to name just two. Thank you to these generous countries. Thank you very much. 

Matteo Bruni: The next question is in Italian from the journalist Stefania Falasca.

Stefania Falasca (Avvenire): Good morning, Holy Father. Thank you. In three days in this country, which is a key country of the Middle East, you have done what the powerful of the earth have been discussing for 30 years. You have already explained what was the interesting genesis of your travels, how the choices for your travels originate, but now in this juncture, can you also consider a trip to Syria? What could be the objectives from now to a year from now of other places where your presence is required?

Pope Francis: Thank you. In the Middle East only the hypothesis, and also the promise is for Lebanon. I have not thought about a trip to Syria. I have not thought about it because the inspiration did not come to me. But I am so close to the tormented and beloved Syria, as I call it. I remember from the beginning of my pontificate that afternoon of prayer in St. Peter’s Square. There was the rosary, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. And how many Muslims with carpets on the ground were praying with us for peace in Syria, to stop the bombing, at that moment when it was said that there would be a fierce bombing. I carry Syria in my heart, but thinking about a trip, it has not occurred to me at this moment. Thank you.

Matteo Bruni: Thank you. The next question comes from Sylwia Wysocka of the Polish press.

Sylwia Wysocka (Polish Press Agency): Holy Father, in these very difficult 12 months your activity has been very limited. Yesterday you had the first direct and very close contact with the people in Qaraqosh: What did you feel? And then, in your opinion, now, with the current health system, can the general audiences with people, with faithful, recommence as before?

Pope Francis: I feel different when I am away from the people in the audiences. I would like to restart the general audiences again as soon as possible. Hopefully the conditions will be right. I will follow the norms of the authorities in this. They are in charge and they have the grace of God to help us in this. They are responsible for setting the rules, whether we like them or not. They are responsible and they have to be so.

Now I have started again with the Angelus in the square, with the distances it can be done. There is the proposal of small general audiences, but I have not decided until the development of the situation becomes clear. After these months of imprisonment, I really felt a bit imprisoned, this is, for me, living again.

Living again because it is touching the Church, touching the holy people of God, touching all peoples. A priest becomes a priest to serve, to serve the people of God, not for careerism, right? Not for the money.

This morning in the Mass there was [the Scripture reading about] the healing of Naaman the Syrian and it said that Naaman wanted to give gifts after he had been healed. But he refused… but the prophet Elisha refused them. And the Bible continues: the prophet Elisha’s assistant, when they had left, settled the prophet well and running he followed Naaman and asked for gifts for him. And God said, “the leprosy that Naaman had will cling to you.” I am afraid that we, men and women of the Church, especially we priests, do not have this gratuitous closeness to the people of God which is what saves us.

And to be like Naaman’s servant, to help, but then going back [for the gifts.] I am afraid of that leprosy. And the only one who saves us from the leprosy of greed, of pride, is the holy people of God, like what God spoke about with David, “I have taken you out of the flock, do not forget the flock.” That of which Paul spoke to Timothy: “Remember your mother and grandmother who nursed you in the faith.” Do not lose your belonging to the people of God to become a privileged caste of consecrated, clerics, anything.

This is why contact with the people saves us, helps us. We give the Eucharist, preaching, our function to the people of God, but they give us belonging. Let us not forget this belonging to the people of God. Then begin again like this.

I met in Iraq, in Qaraqosh… I did not imagine the ruins of Mosul, I did not imagine. Really. Yes, I may have seen things, I may have read the book, but this touches, it is touching.

What touched me the most was the testimony of a mother in Qaraqosh. A priest who truly knows poverty, service, penance; and a woman who lost her son in the first bombings by ISIS gave her testimony. She said one word: forgiveness. I was moved. A mother who says: I forgive, I ask forgiveness for them.

I was reminded of my trip to Colombia, of that meeting in Villavicencio where so many people, women above all, mothers and brides, spoke about their experience of the murder of their children and husbands. They said, “I forgive, I forgive.” But this word we have lost. We know how to insult big time. We know how to condemn in a big way. Me first, we know it well. But to forgive, to forgive one’s enemies. This is the pure Gospel. This is what touched me the most in Qaraqosh. 

Matteo Bruni: There are other questions if you want. Otherwise we can… 

Pope Francis: How long has it been?

Bruni: Almost an hour.

Pope Francis: We have been talking for almost an hour. I don’t know, I would continue, [joking] but the car… [is waiting for me.] Let’s do, how do you say, the last one before celebrating the birthday.

Matteo Bruni: The last is by Catherine Marciano from the French press, from the Agence France-Presse.

Catherine Marciano (AFP): Your Holiness, I wanted to know what you felt in the helicopter seeing the destroyed city of Mosul and praying on the ruins of a church. Since it is Women’s Day, I would like to ask a little question about women… You have supported the women in Qaraqosh with very nice words, but what do you think about the fact that a Muslim woman in love cannot marry a Christian without being discarded by her family or even worse. But the first question was about Mosul. Thank you, Your Holiness.

Pope Francis: I said what I felt in Mosul a little bit en passant. When I stopped in front of the destroyed church, I had no words, I had no words… beyond belief, beyond belief. Not just the church, even the other destroyed churches. Even a destroyed mosque, you can see that [the perpetrators] did not agree with the people. Not to believe our human cruelty, no. At this moment I do not want to say the word, “it begins again,” but let’s look at Africa. With our experience of Mosul, and these people who destroy everything, enmity is created and the so-called Islamic State begins to act. This is a bad thing, very bad, and before moving on to the other question —  A question that came to my mind in the church was this: “But who sells weapons to these destroyers? Because they do not make weapons at home. Yes, they will make some bombs, but who sells the weapons, who is responsible? I would at least ask that those who sell the weapons have the sincerity to say: we sell weapons. They don’t say it. It’s ugly.

Women… women are braver than men. But even today women are humiliated. Let’s go to the extreme: one of you showed me the list of prices for women. [Ed. prepared by ISIS for selling Christian and Yazidi women.] I couldn’t believe it: if the woman is like this, she costs this much… to sell her… Women are sold, women are enslaved. Even in the center of Rome, the work against trafficking is an everyday job.

During the Jubilee, I went to visit one of the many houses of the Opera Don Benzi: Ransomed girls, one with her ear cut off because she had not brought the right money that day, and the other brought from Bratislava in the trunk of a car, a slave, kidnapped. This happens among us, the educated. Human trafficking. In these countries, some, especially in parts of Africa, there is mutilation as a ritual that must be done. Women are still slaves, and we have to fight, struggle, for the dignity of women. They are the ones who carry history forward. This is not an exaggeration: Women carry history forward and it’s not a compliment because today is Women’s Day. Even slavery is like this, the rejection of women… Just think, there are places where there is the debate regarding whether repudiation of a wife should be given in writing or only orally. Not even the right to have the act of repudiation! This is happening today, but to keep us from straying, think of what happens in the center of Rome, of the girls who are kidnapped and are exploited. I think I have said everything about this. I wish you a good end to your trip and I ask you to pray for me, I need it. Thank you.

Source: CNA