Pope Francis begins a three-day whirlwind tour of Iraq on Friday, despite worries that he could draw large crowds at a moment when the coronavirus appears to be resurgent in the country.
Continuing security concerns in a nation ravaged by years of war and conflict were also not enough to deter Pope Francis from fulfilling a promise to visit one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.
Why is Francis visiting Iraq?
Such a visit has been the dream of several popes. John Paul II intended to go in 2000, but the trip was canceled as tensions in the region mounted. Benedict XVI was also invited but couldn’t go because of the war.
Iraq’s president, Barham Salih, invited Francis to visit in July 2019, hoping it would help the country heal after years of strife.
Francis accepted the invitation and has made it clear that he does not want to disappoint the Iraqi people, especially the country’s suffering Christian population. The Vatican believes the risks are outweighed by the chance to support and be close to them — one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.
Some church officials believe the Christian faith is in danger of disappearing from Iraq. Its ranks have been dwindling for years — cut to roughly a third of the 1.5 million who lived there during the final years of Saddam Hussein’s rule.
Francis will also meet with Shiite leaders, hoping to improve relations and establish a groundwork for peace that protects people of all religions in Iraq.
What about the pandemic?
After more than a year cooped up behind the Vatican walls, Francis is to travel to Baghdad on Friday at a tense time in the pandemic, sending a message that flies in the face of many public health guidelines.
In his weekly address on Wednesday, the pope said he would not be deterred.
“I ask that you accompany this apostolic trip with prayer so that it can occur in the best way possible, bear the hoped-for fruit,” he said. “The Iraqi people await us.”
Francis, who was vaccinated in mid-January, has urged wealthy countries to give vaccine doses to poorer ones, and called a refusal to vaccinate “suicidal.”
The pope’s entourage has also been inoculated.
The possibility that Francis, who is 84, might inadvertently endanger an Iraqi population with practically no access to vaccines is not lost on his allies back in Rome.
“There is this concern that the pope’s visit not put the people’s health at risk — this is evident,” said the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest and close ally of Francis. “There is an awareness of the problem.”
The Vatican insists that the trip will be a safe, socially distanced and sober visit devoid of the usual fanfare. A Vatican spokesman also played down the number of cases in Iraq when reporters asked how Francis could justify not delaying the trip.
Supporters worry that the pope’s goals for the visit could be eclipsed by any indication that he is contributing to the spread of the coronavirus by staging events where social distancing is hard to enforce.
What will he do while he’s there?
Francis has a busy schedule during the visit. He starts in Baghdad and will meet with political officials, as is customary, before meeting with Catholic clergy and seminarians at Our Lady of Salvation, the Syrian Catholic church where an attack in 2010 killed more than 50 people.
On Saturday, he will fly to Najaf, the holiest city for Shiites in Iraq. There, he will meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a reclusive 90-year-old Muslim cleric who remains almost completely out of public life. The most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq, the ayatollah rarely meets with foreign dignitaries.
Another highlight of Francis’s day will be an interreligious meeting at the Plain of Ur, which tradition holds was the home of Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Francis will deliver a speech there and then return to Baghdad, where he will celebrate Mass at the Chaldean Church.
On Sunday, he is scheduled to fly to Erbil, in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has been the site of rocket attacks in recent days.
After meeting officials there, the pope will depart by helicopter for Mosul, a once religiously diverse city that has been laid to waste by war and by the Islamic State’s occupation of part of Iraq. Francis will deliver a prayer for war victims in the city’s Church Square.
He then travels to Qaraqosh, one of Iraq’s most vibrant Christian towns, whose community has been sharply eroded by violence and migration over the last decade. He will deliver a speech at a church and then return to Erbil, where he will celebrate an outdoor Mass at Franso Hariri soccer stadium.
He returns to Rome on Monday.
What does the visit mean for Iraq’s leaders?
Iraq has welcomed the visit as a chance to showcase its relative stability after years of war and sectarian conflict. But it takes place against the backdrop of continued rocket attacks by Iran-backed militias on U.S. targets in Iraq, including an assault on Wednesday. That is on top of a persistent Islamic State presence two years after the terrorist group lost the last of the territory it controlled there.
The pope will be formally welcomed by Iraq’s head of state, President Barham Salih, a Kurdish politician who previously met Francis in Rome and has made minority rights a priority.
Francis will also meet with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who came to power after the previous prime minister resigned in 2019 amid sweeping antigovernment protests.
The pope’s most highly anticipated official meeting in Iraq will be with Ayatollah Sistani. The ayatollah’s messages, delivered through a representative, carry great weight. And he has changed the course of Iraqi history on issues such as elections.
The papal meeting will be a private one at the ayatollah’s modest home in Najaf. Officials there have said they do not expect any agreement between the two to be signed.
Why is Iraq important to the Roman Catholic Church?
Christianity’s roots in Iraq extend back to the first decades of the faith. The tombs of biblical figures such as Jonah and Joshua are believed to be there.
Iraq’s Christian population was once a vibrant community of various Christian rites — including Armenian, Assyrian, Chaldean, Melkite and Syriac. But it has been culled by persecution, a devastating decade of war after the U.S. invasion in 2003, and then decimation at the brutal hands of the Islamic State from 2014 to 2017.
Many of the country’s surviving Christians fled to Canada, Jordan, Turkey and the United States. For Christians, the pope’s coming to bear witness to their suffering is a powerful show of solidarity.