Pope Francis Arrives in Iraq For Historic Visit

Lawrence Kim
Марта 6, 2021

Pope Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday in the first-ever papal visit to the Middle Eastern nation, amid heightened security concerns for the pontiff in what's considered one of the most unsafe countries on Earth.

IRBIL, Iraq - Pope Francis has touched down in Iraq for the first-ever papal visit to the predominantly Muslim country, beginning a four-day visit in Baghdad, where yellow and white Vatican flags and likenesses of the pontiff flutter above hastily weeded traffic circles.

Francis landed in the afternoon at Baghdad's International Airport, where he was greeted by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi, as well as groups showcasing Iraq's diverse folklore music and dance. He was greeted with fanfare as he stepped onto the red carpet, and then by a choir as he entered the airport. The conversation was not broadcast. But many in the airport and along the motorcade route were packed together and not wearing masks.

The pope's schedule Friday included a private meeting with al-Kadhimin and Salih and public meetings with authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps at the presidential palace before traveling to the Syro-Catholic Cathedral of "Our Lady of Salvation".

The pontiff will also visit Ur, birthplace of the prophet Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, and meet Iraq's revered top Shi'ite Muslim cleric, 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

He will say Mass at a Baghdad church, meet Iraq's top Shi'ite Muslim cleric in the southern city of Najaf and travel north to Mosul, where the army had to empty the streets for security reasons a year ago for a visit by Iraq's prime minister.

Already in 2010, four years before the invasion of Iraq by the Islamic State, nearly half of the beleaguered Christian population had already fled the war's sectarian violence and persecution.

"I come among you as a pilgrim of peace, to repeat 'you are all brothers, '" Francis said in a video-message to the Iraqi people on the eve of his visit. "To ask God for the consolation of hearts and the healing of wounds".

The papal visit has raised alarm among public health experts, who fear large crowds will inevitably gather to see the pope.

The leader of the Roman Catholic Church arrived Friday in Baghdad on a historic trip.

"And it is not only a visit to Christians but to Iraq in general". He will honor the dead in a Mosul square surrounded by shells of destroyed churches and meet with the small Christian community that returned to Qaraqosh.

The Pope's visit to Iraq is seen as hugely significant to the less than 400,000 Christians in the country, who face persecution and violence. "The different churches present in Iraq, each with its age-old historical, liturgical and spiritual patrimony, are like so many individually coloured threads that, woven together, make up a single handsome carpet, one that displays not only our fraternity but points also to its source".

Almost seven years later, Francis has fulfilled his promise, visiting one of the first early Christian communities in the region. Now, a little under half the residents are back, he says, and maybe the papal visit will inspire more to return.

The pope said before the trip that he felt compelled to make the risky visit to Iraq because its people "have suffered so much".

Remembering all victims of violence and persecution, regardless of religion, he said that the deaths of the 48 Servants of God killed in 2010 were "a powerful reminder that inciting war, hateful attitudes, violence or the shedding of blood are incompatible with authentic religious teachings". "And I think that's one thing that will be a topic discussed between the pope and Sistani".

The few Christians who remain in Iraq harbor a lingering mistrust of their Muslim neighbors and face structural discrimination long predating both IS and the 2003 USA -led invasion that plunged the country into chaos. A contrasting note came Wednesday from Abu Ali al-Askari, a spokesman for Kata'ib Hezbollah, one of the largest Iranian-allied militant groups in Iraq and one of the groups that the US bombed in retaliation for last month's rocket attack.

But amid a spike in COVID-19 cases there, The New York Times notes there have been concerns that the Iraq trip "has the potential to be a superspreader event", and that although the Vatican has said that all events will be safe and socially distanced, "the pope's goals for the visit could be eclipsed by any indication that he is contributing to the spread of the coronavirus".

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