Recent bombings and the pandemic have raised safety concerns about the trip next month
Pope Francis during his weekly general audience in the Apostolic Palace on Wednesday
THE Vatican has given the strongest indication yet that Pope Francis intends to carry out his commitment to visiting Iraq next month: it has released the programme for his three-day stay.
The invitation was delivered to the Pope in July 2019, in the hope that a visit would help to heal the wounds in Iraqi society after years of bloodshed. Last December, the Pope announced his intention to take up the Iraqi invitation. If all goes to plan, he will be the first pope to visit Iraq — the ancient biblical lands of Mesopotamia.
While work has continued on plans for the visit, doubts have repeatedly been expressed over Pope Francis’s safety, over recent weeks in particular, when bombings were carried out apparently by a resurgent Islamic State group. There are also concerns related to the Covid-19 pandemic, which is seriously afflicting Iraq.
Earlier this year, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, acknowledged the challenges, but said that the Pope was still “very interested in the trip to Iraq, regardless of the complications it might have. We saw it with the attacks, that there are some security challenges, but the Pope wants to go to encourage Christians.”
Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in Baghdad on the afternoon of 5 March. After a meeting with President of Iraq, Barham Salih, he will be introduced to a gathering of bishops, priests, and other churchpeople at the Syrian Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, in the capital.
On 6 March, he will travel south to Najaf, where he will meet the country’s Shia spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, before flying on to Nassiriya for an interreligious meeting on the Plain of Ur. Back in Baghdad, he will celebrate mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of St Joseph.
The next day, the Pope visits northern Iraq, reciting prayers for the victims of war in Mosul, and then flying by helicopter to Qaraqosh. There he will 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. The Pope returns to Rome on 8 March.
Since the Pope announced his intention to visit Iraq, Christians there have been wondering if circumstances would allow it to happen. “We have been living in fear for some time, but also in hope,” the Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church said at the time. The arrival of the Pope, he said, would be interpreted as a sign of rebirth for Iraq, “a new Christmas”. The Iraqi government called the planned visit “an historic event, symbolising a message of peace to Iraq and the whole region”.
The Pope’s meeting with Ayatollah Sistani is one of the highlights of his visit. He will undoubtedly thank the Shia leader for the efforts that his community have been making to help Christians who were robbed of their property during the many years of unrest.
Much of the work has been led by another Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. A spokesman for the cleric said that local militias — some of them Shia — and influential families had seized the homes of Christians. Thus far, 38 had been returned to their owners as part of a campaign to re-establish justice and put an end to the infringements of the property rights of “our brother Christians”.
A boost to morale is something that Iraqis of all communities need. The drop in oil-prices over recent months has compounded the economic gloom, leading to street protests demanding the provision of jobs and the restoration of basic services, such as a constant electricity supply.