Despite fears over safety and coronavirus, the Pope has begun his historic visit to Iraq, which will last for four days. This is the first ever papal pilgrimage to Iraq, and the Pope’s first foreign visit in over a year due to the coronavirus. He will visit several important landmarks, including the birthplace of Abraham at Ur, and the city of Mosul, which saw extreme violence just a few years ago whilst it was the capital of the so-called Islamic State.
In a video message before leaving the Vatican, the Pope said that he ‘greatly desired’ to meet the people of Iraq, calling the country ‘an ancient and outstanding cradle of civilization’. “I am coming as a pilgrim, as a penitent pilgrim, to implore from the Lord forgiveness and reconciliation after years of war and terrorism, to beg from God the consolation of hearts and the healing of wounds,” he added.
Upon landing, the Pope was greeted at the airport by Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, along with a red carpet, Iraqis in national dress, and a largely unmasked choir. The Pope also visited Iraq’s Presidential Palace, where he met President Barham Salih.
Yet, the trip has not come without its challenges. Six weeks ago, two suicide bombs were detonated at a busy market Iraq’s capital city, Baghdad, killing at least 32 people. This, combined with sectarian violence and recent rocket attacks on US military bases, caused concerns about the Pope’s safety during his visit. Nonetheless, he confirmed earlier this week that the visit would still go ahead.
Recently, Iraq has experienced a wave of coronavirus cases, posing even more challenges to the Pope and his entourage. However, the Pope took precautions to make sure he kept himself and others safe from the virus, including wearing a mask where possible. The Pope has also received the coronavirus vaccine, and has urged others to do the same. Pope Francis is at high-risk from the coronavirus, as he is 84 and is missing part of a lung.
The Pope brings with him a message of inter-faith tolerance. Iraq is a country which has seen high levels of sectarian conflict between religious groups, and its Christians have faced brutal persecution at the hands of ISIS, who just a few years ago controlled large swathes of Iraq. In line with this message of inter-religious cooperation, Pope Francis will visit the 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a major figure in Shi’a Islam and one of the most important Islamic scholars in the world. The two will meet in the Shi’a holy city of Najaf on Sunday.
In Mosul, the Pope will hold a vigil in Hosh al Bieaa (Church square) in which he will pray for the victims of war. Afterwards, he will hold a service of prayer and reflection at the Immaculate Conception Church in the town of Qaraqosh, which became a particular focus of ISIS’ brutality.