· Vatican City ·

Ezekiel, Prophet of the
Spirit of God

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06 March 2021

In Iraq, in ancient Babylon, there is an historic site dear to Jews, Christians and Muslims: the tomb of the Prophet Ezekiel, a symbol of visions and prophesies; the Pope’s journey to Mesopotamia carries a vision of coexistence quite necessary in the Middle East and in Iraq. Cardinal Fernando Filoni, Grand Master of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre and former Apostolic Nuncio to Iraq, offers a reflection inspired by this sacred place that he knows well, having visited it on pilgrimage.

In the Spring of 2002, accompanied by some Iraqi friends, I went on pilgrimage to Kafel-al-Hilla. The remains of ancient Babylon of Chaldeans were not far; further to the south at al-Najaf now lives the high spiritual authority of the Shiites, the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, whom Pope Francis will visit on 6 March. In Kafel-al-Hilla there is an ancient synagogue with visible Hebrew writings, the destination of Muslim pilgrimages and of the few Christians who venture up to there, but of no Jewish person, since the last communities were expelled from Iraq following the Arab-Israeli wars of the 1980s. Here tradition indicates the existence of the tomb of the prophet Ezekiel. The place is sacred. The sepulchre is surrounded by a metal grill that protects it. This is the site of prayer, much loved by Shiite women who go there to ask for help with a pregnancy in its early or final phase. Thus, here the prophet Ezekiel is venerated. If it is said that the spirit of Jonah, the preacher of conversion, lingers in Nineveh, then in the ancient region of Babylon lingers that of Ezekiel, a priest deported in 597 b.c. with Jehoiachin, King of Judah. Ezekiel was the life companion of the deported.

Biblically speaking, he is the prophet of the Spirit of God who, with grand visions exhorted the exiles, comforted and educated in hope, remembering that God himself will give “a new heart and a new spirit” (cf. Ez 11:19). It has been written that Ezekiel preached divine benevolence, which averts remorse: we are on the cusp of grace (P. Auvray). But what is remembered in particular of the prophet is his grand vision of the valley of dry bones (cf. Ez 37:1-14) which animate and take on human features, to the extent of forming a boundless multitude of living beings; this vision carries with it forever an oracle of Almighty God.

In the dark days of Isis, when Mosul and then the Nineveh Plain were occupied in the summer of 2014, and thousands of Christians, Yazidis and Muslims fled, seeking refuge in eastern and northern Kurdistan, the Pope conceived the idea of a journey among those desperate people. The instability of Iraq long delayed this apostolic visit. Still today concerns are not lacking; Covid-19 has added to them. But one cannot go to manifest solidarity by waiting only for happier times. The hope of peace, harmony, coexistence in a land that too often has been shaken by hatred, brings to mind the hopeful words of Jonah to Nineveh (8th century b.c ., of Nahoum to Assyria (7th century b.c.) and of Ezekiel to Babylon (6th century b.c. ).

Solidarity is appreciated especially in difficult times. In the time of affliction God visits his people, recalls the Book of Exodus (4:31), and in the time of Jesus, the crowd, noting the good he had done, commented: “God has visited his people” (Lk 7:16).

In Iraq still today there is a need for vision and prophecy; there is a need for the Pope’s visit, for this life event that the Pontifical visit -— which is not a personal act, but one of the entire Church — brings with it. It is a warm breath that gives back life to the many martyrs and to the faith of the many Christians that have been killed, persecuted and discriminated against; but also to the many men and many women of other ethnic and religious expressions that have equally suffered violence. There is a need to recompose the countless fractures of this people and of this land. There is a need for Christians, Yazidis, Mandaeans and all the other minorities together with the Shiites and Sunnis to find a civil coexistence that respects the rights of all. It is possible to be brothers and sisters if there is the Spirit of God. The Pope’s visit, as John Paul ii wished (2000), can be the seed rich with life that will bear fruit. It is up to the people of Iraq first of all to take on the responsibility, and then to everyone to contribute.

Fernando Filoni