POPE FRANCIS arrived in Iraq on Friday, amid security concerns and rising Covid-19 infection rates, for a four-day visit intended to offer support to the dwindling number of Christians in the country (News, 11 February).
During the flight, the Pope said that, despite the risks, he was “duty bound” to visit “a land that has been martyred for so many years”. In a video message before he boarded the plane, he said: “I am coming as a pilgrim, as a penitent pilgrim, to implore from the Lord forgiveness and reconciliation after years of war and terrorism, to beg from God the consolation of hearts and the healing of wounds.”
It is the first papal visit to Iraq, and Pope Francis’s first overseas visit since the beginning of the pandemic. So far, at least 13,000 people have died from coronavirus in the country, which received its first batch of vaccines earlier this week. The Vatican’s ambassador to Iraq confirmed last week that he had tested positive. Pope Francis has been vaccinated against the disease.
His first stop in the country was at the presidential palace, to which he travelled in a car flanked by Iraqi security forces on horseback. President Barham Salih thanked the Pope for making the journey. “Your insistence on visiting Iraq despite the difficulties of the epidemic, and the difficult circumstances that our country is going through, doubles the value of the visit for Iraqis,” he said.
Speaking from the palace, the Pope appealed for protection and respect for Iraq’s minority groups, including Christians. “Their participation in public life, as citizens with full rights, freedoms, and responsibilities, will testify that a healthy pluralism of religious beliefs, ethnicities, and cultures can contribute to the nation’s prosperity and harmony,” he said.
He spoke specifically of the Yazidi Christian community, as “innocent victims of senseless and brutal atrocities, persecuted and killed for their religion, and whose very identity and survival was put at risk”.
Iraq has one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, dating back to the first century, but numbers have plummeted in recent decades to fewer than 250,000 people, less than one per cent of the population. Tens of thousands of Christians fled their homes when IS militants overran parts of the country, destroying churches and killing believers who would not convert.
On Friday afternoon, the Pope met bishops, priests, and Christians at the Syrian Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, in Baghdad, where 52 Christians and police were killed in an attack by jihadists in 2010 (News, 12 November 2010).
On Saturday, he is due to travel south to Najaf, where he is to meet the country’s Shia spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The two are to pray together. The Pope will then fly to Nassiriya for an interfaith meeting on the Plain of Ur, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of the prophet Abraham. Back in Baghdad, he will celebrate mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of St Joseph.
On Sunday, the Pope is due to visit northern Iraq, reciting prayers for the victims of the war with IS in Mosul. He will then fly by helicopter to Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city, which in 2014 was violently purged by Islamist fundamentalists, causing tens of thousands of Christians to flee (News, 8 August 2014). Many have now returned to rebuild churches. He is due meet the Christian community at the Church of the Immaculate Conception. In Erbil, in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, he will celebrate mass at a sports stadium and meet some of the 150,000 Christian refugees from central Iraq who have found shelter there.
Pope Francis returns to Rome on 8 March.