First papal visit to Iraq to go ahead despite Covid and terrorism fears

Harriet Sherwood
·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Zaid Al-Obeidi/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Zaid Al-Obeidi/AFP/Getty Images

Despite the twin threats of Covid-19 and terrorism, the first ever papal visit to Iraq is due to begin on Friday, during which Francis will meet beleaguered Christian communities and one of the world’s most influential Muslim leaders.

For 84-year-old Pope Francis, it will be his first trip abroad for 15 months as the pandemic has curtailed his movements. New Covid restrictions came into effect in Iraq last week, with overnight curfews and a full three-day lockdown at weekends, as daily recorded cases doubled in less than a week.

All members of the papal entourage will be vaccinated against the virus before departure, and social distancing and mask-wearing will be required at events.

The Iraqi government has promised high security during the three-day visit to six cities. Although bombings and other violent attacks have abated in recent years, at least 32 people were killed and more than 100 injured in a twin suicide bombing at a Baghdad market last month.

“The visit entails risks, and the pope is taking the risks because he sees himself as a pastor, as a father, as one who goes to whoever is in difficulty. As for security, I believe the Iraqi government will take all the measures to ensure the visit is tranquil,” Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Oriental Churches told America magazine.

Pope Francis’s 33rd visit abroad in his eight years at the head of the Roman Catholic church will begin in Baghdad with a ceremony at the presidential palace and a meeting with president Barham Salih and prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. The pontiff will also meet bishops, priests and others at the city’s Syro-Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation.

On Saturday, he will travel south to the holy city of Najaf to meet the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the influential 90-year-old Shia Muslim cleric. In recent years, Francis has built strong relationships with Muslim leaders.

In February 2019, Francis and sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque and the leading figure in Sunni Islam, signed a historic declaration of fraternity in Abu Dhabi.

For Iraq’s small Christian community, the highlight of the trip will be Francis’s visit to the north of the country. Thousands of Christians in the area were killed under the rule of Islamic State between 2014 and 2017, and hundreds of thousands more fled their homes in the face of violence and persecution.

Francis will visit the cities of Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh to meet people now trying to rebuild their communities and churches. In Mosul, the pope will pray at a memorial for victims of Islamic State, and in Qaraqosh, he will visit the Saint Mary al-Tahira Cathedral, which is being repaired after looting and damage caused by Islamic State fighters.

In Erbil, a mass is scheduled to take place at a football stadium, where numbers will be limited and contact details of all those attending taken.

“He is coming to be face to face, to show us he cares about us,” archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, who leads the Chaldean Catholic community in Erbil, told National Catholic Reporter.

Thousands of Christian refugees fled to Erbil, where they were offered shelter, Warda said. “We’ve learned from this experience about sharing, generosity. The evilness of Isis has limited some of the life of the community, but God has opened other doors with love and generosity.”

According to Sandi, Francis wants “to bring consolation, closeness, fraternity, openness, friendship to this people that has suffered so much and to the Catholic church and the Catholic Christians of this land who have suffered in a way that has left them decimated.”

Francis will return to Rome on Monday 8 March.