John Cookson is in Iraq ahead of Pope Francis’s scheduled arrival Friday at 2pm local time
– Baghdad – Pope Francis is set to make history Friday, by becoming the first-ever leader of the world’s Catholics to visit Iraq. He brings a message of brotherhood for the people of the country, and much needed hope to nearly half a million Christians who have suffered for decades under the shadow of persecution and war.
“The day after tomorrow,” Pope Francis said on Wednesday at the weekly General Audience, “God willing, I will go to Iraq for a three-day pilgrimage. For a long time I have wanted to meet those people who have suffered so much; to meet that martyred Church in the land of Abraham.”
“Together with other religious leaders,” Pope Francis went on to say, “we will make one more step forward toward the brotherhood of believers.” He invited the faithful to accompany the visit with their prayers, “so that it can develop in the best possible way, bringing the fruits that we hope.”
“The Iraqi people are waiting for us,” the pontiff noted, adding that the sorely tried people of the nation also waited for Pope St. John Paul II, but war kept him from going. “We can’t disappoint these people for the second time,” he said. “Let’s pray that this trip will go well.”
The Trip at a Glance
Pope Francis has always been resolute the pilgrimage would go ahead despite growing Covid-19 and security concerns, meanwhile the country’s dwindling Christian communities have been practicing hymns and sprucing up their bombed out churches in eager anticipation.
“We needed it immensely after all these years of darkness,” said Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, whose family come from Mosul in Iraq’s northwest. Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil told the Catholic Herald: “Although we Christians are scourged and wounded, the Pope’s visit will tell the world we’re still here.”
The 84-year old pilgrim Pope will spend four gruelling days crisscrossing Iraq by plane, road, and helicopter under the official banner taken from Jesus’s words quoted in Matthew 23-8: “You are all brothers.”
He’ll be welcomed to Baghdad in a ceremony at the Presidential Palace by Iraq’s Kurdish President Barham Saleh and Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi.
The Pope will then meet clergy and worshippers at Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad, scene of one of Iraq’s worst terrorist atrocities, when Al-Qaeda suicide bombers and gunmen massacred 58 Syriac Christians in October 2010.
Pope Francis will fly to the central city of Najaf on Saturday to sit down with 90-year old, Iranian born, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Sistani, leader of Iraq’s Shias and one of the world’s most influential Muslim clerics. The meeting will be behind closed doors.
Cardinal Sako said recently it is hoped Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani would jointly sign the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” that the Pope first signed in Abu Dhabi with Sunni leader Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar, in February 2019.
The Pope travels on to the southern city of Nasiriyah, gateway to the Iraqi Marshes, a heavenly region of vast lakes and reed beds often described as the original Garden of Eden.
At the nearby settlement of Ur — the birthplace of Abraham, in whom Jews, Christians and Muslims all claim common sonship — His Holiness will join Muslim clerics in an inter religious gathering.
The banner outside St Joseph’s Cathedral in Baghdad’s Al Khulaafa Street reads: “The church doors are open to all visitors, Christian and Muslim.” The Pope will say mass there after he returns to the capital on a day which the Vatican believes will profoundly cement ties between two of the world’s great religions.
On Sunday, Francis flies north to Erbil to visit a swathe of Iraq where fighters of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) brought terror and death in the summer of 2014 and where Christians are now caught up in fighting between the Turkish military and Kurdish separatists, the PKK.
The inhuman suffering of Christian communities in this region has always touched the Pope’s heart, especially since ISIS invaders gave thousands of families 24 hours to embrace Islam or leave their homes. Those who showed resistance had their throats cut or were shot without mercy, often in front of loved ones. ISIS even threatened to invade the Vatican and behead the Pope.
At the time His Holiness accused the jihadists of having: “offended God and humanity.”
The Pope will also travel to the Nineveh Plains to see for himself where ISIS carried out atrocities against Christians and Yazidis, including the city of Al Qaraqosh where communities are rebuilding their lives after the jihadists’ reign of terror.
Francis will end his last full day in Iraq by presiding over a ticket only mass for up to 10,000 worshippers at the Franso Hariri sports stadium in Erbil, before flying back to Baghdad that evening and onwards to Rome on Monday.
Iraq’s near 2000-year old Christian community is one of the world’s oldest and includes Chaldean, Armenian Orthodox and Protestant, as well as other branches.
At the time of the US-led invasion in 2003 which toppled Saddam Hussein, Christians made up six per cent of Iraq’s population, but after nearly two decades of persecution since barely one per cent remain.
Pope Francis’s pilgrimage may be historic but it will not be without difficulties for the Pontiff, his entourage and more than 400 accredited foreign journalists and camera teams who’ve been warned about last minute changes to the itinerary.
Covid-19 and Security Concerns
Iraq has witnessed a spike in new Covid-19 cases, including Archbishop Mitja Leskovar the Vatican’s Ambassador, and the government has not eased its regular Friday to Sunday full curfew to stem fresh infections.
Gatherings of Christians will be limited, leaving many with no choice but to watch the visit on TV.
With such a high profile religious visitor security concerns are also running high.
Two days before the Pope’s arrival ten rockets slammed into Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq’s Al Anbar province which hosts US-led coalition forces. They were thought to be fired by Iranian backed Shia militia. Last month a Shia group known as the Guardians of Blood, launched rockets on a coalition airbase in Erbil. Days later Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone was also hit.
ISIS are by no means routed from Iraq.
The Iraqi Army recently arrested five ISIS members north of Baghdad who were said to be planning an attack – a follow up to one in January when the jihadists carried out a twin suicide bombing in the capital killing 32 and injuring hundreds.
Meanwhile in Nasiriya, a city on the Pope’s itinerary, anti-corruption violence has left at least five protestors dead.
Pope Francis is no stranger to difficult trips, including a pilgrimage to Egypt’s Copts in 2017, but has always said he has no concerns about his own life.
Asked in February why he was making a tour of Iraq at a time of growing political tension and worries about the spread of Covid, Pope Francis replied: “I am the pastor of people who are suffering.”
Asked about reaction to the Pope’s arrival on Iraqi soil, Amer Rafiq, 30, a Christian worshipper in Erbil, said: “I’m shedding tears of joy.”