For the Auxiliary Bishop of Baghdad, the visit to Najaf will be “one of the highlights” of the apostolic journey to Iraq. The Shi‘a leader “is not a politician, but a man of faith” who works for human fraternity. The new coronavirus pandemic will prevent the usual crowds, but Christians and others are waiting for the pontiff “with joy and hope”.
Baghdad (AsiaNews) – The meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani “will be one of the highlights” of the Pope’s visit to Iraq, scheduled from March 5 to 8 according to the official schedule released yesterday by the Vatican.
Both are “great men of peace,” said Mgr Shlemon Warduni, Auxiliary Bishop of Baghdad, speaking about the upcoming papal visit, which was confirmed despite the latest episodes of violence in the country.
The Chaldean Patriarch, Card Louis Sako, has strongly supported the visit, hoping that it might be a “key moment in the life of Iraq”.
“During a personal meeting with al-Sistani, he explained to me how he behaves with politicians,” explained Bishop Warduni, who is the patriarch’s righthand man. “I don’t go to them, he said; they come to me and I tell them what there is to know, to build peace and fraternity. Several times he repeated: I am not a politician; I am a man of faith who wants peace for the whole country.”
Inspired by the maxim “You are all Brothers” taken from the Gospel of Matthew, the apostolic journey to Iraq kicks off on 5 March with the flight from Rome to Baghdad, where the pontiff will be greeted by Iraq’s Prime Minister and other political and religious authorities.
The welcome ceremony will be followed by a private, courtesy visit with Iraq’s president at the Presidential Palace where Francis will make his first speech.
The day will end with a meeting with bishops, priests, religious, seminarians and catechists in the Syro-Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad.
Saturday 6 March will see the high point of interfaith dialogue with the visit in Najaf to the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, after which Pope Francis will leave for Nasiriyah, on the banks of the Euphrates, for an interfaith meeting in Ur of the Chaldeans, the land of Abraham.
In the afternoon, the pontiff will return to Baghdad for the Mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of St Joseph in Baghdad, one of the 11 present in the country.
On 7 March, Pope Francis will visit Iraqi Kurdistan and the Nineveh Plain. In the morning, he will leave for Erbil, where he will meet with religious and civil authorities. He will travel by helicopter to Mosul, for years a stronghold of the Islamic State group, where a prayer will be held for the victims of the war.
This will be followed by a stop in Qaraqosh in the Nineveh Plain, which the Islamic State held until 2016, where the pontiff will address the local community from the Church of the Immaculate Conception. In the afternoon, Francis will be back in Erbil for a Mass at the Franso Hariri Stadium. In the evening, he will return to Baghdad; the next morning he will fly back to Rome.
For Bishop Warduni, “The coming of the pope is a victory of peace over violence. Some people are not happy about this trip; others are afraid that something bad might happen; but the common and most widespread sentiment is one joy among a people, Christians and non-Christians, who want to see and greet him.
“Of course, it will be a different journey from many others because there will not be large crowds because of the new coronavirus pandemic and for security reasons. But his presence alone will be a source of peace and testimony to the Good News that he wants to proclaim to the whole world . . . that we are children of peace and hope.”
“Hopefully, notwithstanding the COVID emergency and the security issue, many people will be able to see him. Some tickets are available for the Masses in Baghdad’s Syro-Catholic and Chaldean cathedrals.
“Certainly some people will wait for him outside the churches, but it will be difficult to please everyone. We are working to better prepare the event and praying that this world tragedy, the pandemic, can really end.”