Security forces on high alert ahead of Pope Francis’s arrival
By John Cookson in Baghdad.
Pope Francis is making one of the most difficult and important pilgrimages of his pontificate. When he sets foot in Iraq for the first time today, he will become the only leader of the world’s Catholics ever to have done so.
Even by Iraqi standards security is ultra tight.
The notorious airport road to downtown Baghdad, where hundreds have died in suicide bombings and sniper attacks in the last twenty years, is lined with elite US-trained Iraqi SWAT teams, dressed head to toe in black, in balaclavas and shades with submachine guns and assault rifles at the ready.
Flags, welcome banners and placards also adorn the same highway: There can be no doubt Pope Francis is getting rock star welcome.
Interestingly I counted the same number of billboards with the Pope’s smiling face as that of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani — a local hero — who was assassinated by the Trump administration a year ago in a drone strike.
Meanwhile police have thrown razor wire across streets adjoining Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral in Baghdad’s Karada district where late this afternoon the Pope will meet with bishops, priests and survivors of a 2010 Al Qaeda terror attack that killed 58 people and injured scores of others.
There I met with a survivor, fifty-three year old Martin Secken, who was idly watching the frantic activity surrounding the Pope’s visit. His sunken eyes and hesitancy to talk about the bombing told me he was still living the nightmare.
“They were worse than animals,” was all he would say.
Passing by, Father Paul Zara, 35, heard our conversation, leant in and said: “The Pope’s visit will bring all of us so much joy it’s hard to describe.”
Christians have been waiting more than 20 years for a Pope to come see them, after St John Paul II’s pilgrimage was abandoned when talks broke down with the then-President Saddam Hussein. Security concerns prevented successor Pope Benedict XVI accepting an invitation.
It’s not only Christian communities who are excited.
Some Muslims I’ve spoken to are excited such a towering religious figure is paying a visit. Piety is important in this country and believe me, the poor old, conflict weary Iraqis don’t see many VIPs of the Pope’s stature dropping in.
47-year old Anwar Jaleel runs a busy kebab house in the same Karada district. “I’m a Muslim and I think the Pope coming to my country is good for Iraq,” he said. “We need more religious fraternity to stop all the wars.”
And whilst Iraq’s Christians are overjoyed the Pope is defying Covid restrictions and apparently brushing aside security concerns to make a brave and historic pilgrimage, the visit is broader than lifting the spirits of the faithful.
His Holiness is working for Muslim-Christian dialogue and reconciliation, hoping to follow the philosophy of his namesake, St Francis of Assisi, in doing so.
To this end, in what an understated Vatican press release describes as a “courtesy call,” the Pope will meet tomorrow with the leader of Iraq’s Shia, Grand Ayatollah Al-Sayyid Ali Al-Husseini Al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf.
I’d like to be the fly on the wall when two wise old men, one aged 84 and the other 90, sip glasses of sweet tea together, as is the customs in households in these parts, and discuss how two great religions can work together.
And there’s more togetherness when the Pope attends an interfaith gathering at Ur in the far south of former Mesopotamia, the alleged birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, claimed as “father in faith” by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
In terms of building bridges: no one can say the Pope is not giving it his best shot.
Before we get too glassy-eyed over the ecstatic reception the Pope is likely to receive, it is important to remember the general welcoming mood is not shared by every person or group active in the country.
The so-called Islamic State (ISIS) are still active in Iraq despite American claims they’ve been defeated. It’s worth remembering seven years ago their leaders said they planned to storm the Vatican, cut the Pope’s head off and put it on a stick.
So the question is: Will the Pope be safe?
Good friend and Iraqi Minister Dara Yarra Rashid assured me security surrounding the Pope’s visit is as tight as it can be — and what I’ve witnessed in Baghdad would seem to point to that.
Which only leaves the ongoing campaign that Iran’s proxies, Shia militants like the Guardians of Blood, are waging against American interests in Iraq. Only three days ago, ten of their rockets slammed in Ain Al-Assad airbase a 150 kilometres north of Baghdad, home to US-led coalition forces.
Last night in Baghdad I noticed what could have been one such group roaming the capital’s downtown district. The local fellow accompanying me on my walkabout told me it was better not to talk to them — they looked the part to him as well — but one wonders whether they would really risk embarrassing Sistani during a sensitive time he’s extending the hand of friendship to the Pope?
Those are the sorts of calculations one makes these days, in this neck of the woods.