— Baghdad — Pope Francis ended the first day of his historic trip to Iraq with hymn singing, clapping and white and yellow flowered-garland handed by well wishers shouting: “Long Live the Pope (Viva il papa! In Italian, localised in “Viva La Papa!)” as he entered the Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
The joyous welcome came as he arrived to pray at Syriac Catholic cathedral in Baghdad’s Karrada district, the scene of one of the worst Al Qaeda atrocities in 2010, when suicide bombers gunned down members of the congregation and priests in an attack that left 58 people dead.
Iraqi commandos stormed the church and bullets are still lodged in the sacristy.
Forty-eight of the dead were Catholic, and senior Vatican officials are mulling their beatification as martyrs in the first step to possible sainthood.
Survivors of the atrocity were among those who greeted Pope Francis, who referred to the church as having been “hallowed by the blood of our brothers and sisters who here paid the ultimate price of their fidelity to the Lord and His Church.”
Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni said this week the Pope had come to Iraq as an: “act of love” and it was clear from the faces of the faithful that they adored him, although they were few in number inside the church due to social distancing restrictions.
Earlier the Pope touched down in Baghdad to a red carpet welcome and a greeting from Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustapha Al-Khadimi, who escorted Francis to his armour-plated limousine. The pair walked down more red carpet flanked by dancers performing and musicians playing. The Pope clearly enjoyed the moment and clapped to the beat although he was visibly limping from a recent flare up of sciatica which seemed worsen during the day. But if he was in pain he didn’t show it.
After a twenty-minute drive to Baghdad’s secure Green Zone, the Pope arrived for a more formal ceremony at the Presidential Palace – a building with a chequered pedigree: It was built for Saddam around 30 years ago, but has been bombed by US Cruise missile strikes and rebuilt at least twice, although a casual observer today would not have known by looking at it.
On a vast, outdoor tarred area members of the Palace Honour Guard lined up to greet the Pope as his limousine swept through the gates and then President Barham Saleh and the pontiff stood formally on a castle-like podium to listen to the Iraqi Army Orchestra in scarlet tunics play spirited renditions of the Vatican and Iraqi national anthems on brass instruments and bagpipes.
Music rang out a functionary released a 100 or so doves from a large metal cage to symbolise the message of peace – although some birds needed a little encouragement to fly and received a gentle poke with a stick from their custodian.
Inevitably, there were formal speeches from the Pope and President Saleh to an invited audience of ranking government officials and senior Catholic clergy, including Cardinal Louis Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church.
”All are losers in this dark chaos and there is no solution except dialogue, common security cooperation and the rights of our citizens.” – Iraqi President Barham Saleh, March 5, 2021
In an address light on diplomatic niceties, Pope Francis urged Iraqis to value their religious minorities and consider them a precious resource needing protection.
“Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as members of the same human family will we be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave to future generations a better, more just and more humane world,” he said.
Saleh, a quietly spoken intellectual, seemed to agree and said the solution to Iraq’s recent turmoil was keeping channels of communication open.
”All are losers in this dark chaos and there is no solution except dialogue, common security cooperation and the rights of our citizens,” he said.
“Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as members of the same human family will we be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave to future generations a better, more just and more humane world.” – Pope Francis, March 5, 2021
“It is a must,” he added, “to continue our work to counter the extremist ideology and uproot terrorism and to be victorious to the concepts of coexistence and diversity.”
At the cathedral on Friday afternoon, Pope Francis called all the country’s Christians to continue their courageous witness to the Gospel in the service of national healing and the upbuilding of Iraqi society.
“May your witness, matured through adversity and strengthened by the blood of martyrs,” he said, “be a shining light in Iraq and beyond in order to proclaim the greatness of the Lord and to make the spirit of this people rejoice in God our Saviour.”
“This evening,” Pope Francis went on to say, “I want to thank you for your efforts to be peacemakers, within your communities and with believers of other religious traditions, sowing seeds of reconciliation and fraternal coexistence that can lead to a rebirth of hope for everyone.”
Vatican and Iraqi Government officials will be breathing sighs of relief the Pope’s first day of crisscrossing this complex, tortured, exasperating yet endearing country went without a hitch.
Saturday sees the Pope on more familiar theological territory, with a visit to Ur — the ancient city of Abraham — in Iraq’s marsh region, believed to be the inspiration the Garden of Eden.
He will also sit down in a small rented house in Najaf with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, leader of Iraq’s Shia on what will prove to be another landmark day.
Christopher R. Altieri contributed to this report from Rome