Pope Francis arrives in Iraq, marking the nation’s first papal visit
Pope Francis arrived in Baghdad Friday – the very first papal visit to Iraq – despite the Covid pandemic and continuing violence in a country with a declining Christian population.
Pope Francis, 84, arrived in Baghdad at 2 p.m. local time with his security guards, assistants and around 75 journalists, for the three-day trip.
To protect the pontiff, the Iraqi government deployed thousands of security personnel, days after al-Asad airbase in western Iraq that houses US and coalition troops was targeted by at least 10 rocket attacks by Iranian-backed militias.
Francois will also travel to Erbil in the autonomous region of northern Iraqi Kurdistan, which recently suffered rocket attacks.
“It is an emblematic journey and it is a duty towards a land [Iraq] who was martyred for so many years ”, said Francois.
the iraqi president Barham Salih initially invited Francis to visit in July 2019 in the hopes it would help heal the country after decades of violence. Francis is expected to visit four cities in Iraq, including the southern city of Najaf, the holiest city for Shiites, and the northern city of Mosul, a former stronghold of the Sunni Muslim Islamic State militant group. He will celebrate mass in a church in Baghdad and meet a senior Shia Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, 90, an influential figure in the Iraqi Shiite community who rarely meets foreign dignitaries. Francis will also visit Ur, near the Euphrates, the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, Patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. While Iraq has enjoyed some degree of security since the defeat of the Islamic state Caliphate in 2017, rocket attacks by Iranian-linked militias continue to target U.S. forces in the country. Moreover, Islamic State militants have not completely disappeared – in January, the Sunnis militant group is suspected of carrying out suicide bombings in central Baghdad, killing 32 people and injuring 100. On Friday, the U.S. Embassy in Iraq warned US citizens nationwide, “Attacks can happen with little or no warning, affecting airports, tourist spots, transportation hubs, markets / malls, and local government facilities. “
Christians in Iraq have faced violence from Islamic activists – in 2010 a massacre in a Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad killed more than 50 people. The country ancient Christian community, one of the oldest in the world, is now estimated at around 250,000, up from a peak of 1.5 million in the last years of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Many Christians fled Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion kidnapped Saddam. Thousands of Christians were subsequently displaced when Islamic State militants took control of northern Iraq in 2014, destroying many churches.
While François is the first pope to officially visit Iraq, previous papal trips planned to the country – by John Paul II and Benedict XVI – have been canceled due to fears of violence.
While Francis received a Covid vaccine in mid-January (and his staff have been vaccinated), there are concerns about the Pope visit during the pandemic, noting that its appearance could draw large crowds to a country where access to vaccines is difficult. The Pope’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, expressed concern that Francis is making the trip now, telling Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that the trip to Iraq could be “dangerous”. The Vatican responded that Francis will practice social distancing in Iraq and maintain safety standards. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni told reporters on Tuesday: “No more than a few hundred people, [socially] distanced ‘will meet to see the Pope at some point in Iraq.