05.03.2021 Europe

Pope Francis in first-ever visit to Iraq to preach peace, rally local Christians

LISTEN MAR 5, 2021

The world leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has started a first-ever papal visit to Iraq. Describing himself as "a pilgrim of peace" the pontiff is expected to urge the country's dwindling number of Christians to help rebuild their nation and their community after years of war and persecution.

Iraqis were keen to welcome the Catholic leader, valuing the global attention his visit will bring.

There were numerous banners and posters in central Baghdad, and billboards depicting Francis with the slogan “We are all Brothers”. In central Tahrir Square, a mock tree was erected emblazoned with the Vatican emblem, while Iraqi and Vatican flags lined empty streets. 

Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said Iraqis were eager to welcome Francis' “message of peace and tolerance” and described the visit as a historic meeting between the “minaret and the bells.”

Among the highlights of the three-day visit is Francis' private meeting Saturday with the country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered figure in Iraq and beyond.

The Baghdad government is eager to show off the relative security it has achieved after years of war and militant attacks. Francis and the Vatican delegation are relying on Iraqi security forces to protect them. Precautions will include the expected first use of an armored car for the popemobile-loving pontiff.

Tahsin al-Khafaji, spokesman for Iraq's joint operations, said security numbers had been increased. 

“This visit is really important to us and provides a good perspective of Iraq because the whole world will be watching,” he said. The high stakes will give Iraqi forces motivation to ensure this visit is a showpiece of safety and peace. 

Francis is breaking his year-long Covid-19 lockdown to refocus the world's attention on a largely neglected people whose northern Christian communities, which date from the time of Christ, were largely uprooted during the violent Islamic State reign from 2014-2017.

For the pope, who has often traveled to places where Christians are a persecuted minority, Iraq's beleaguered community is the epitome of the “martyred church" that he has admired ever since he was a young Jesuit seeking to be a missionary in Asia. 

In Iraq, Francis is seeking to not only honor its martyrs but deliver a message of reconciliation and fraternity. The few Christians who remain in Iraq harbour a lingering mistrust of their Muslim neighbours and face structural discrimination long predating both IS and the 2003 US-led invasion that plunged the country into chaos. 

“The Pope's visit is to encourage the Christians in Iraq to stay, and to say that they are not forgotten,” the Chaldean patriarch, Cardinal Luis Sako, told reporters in Baghdad this week. The aim of Francis' visit, he said, is to encourage them to “hold onto hope”.

The visit comes as Iraq is seeing a new spike in coronavirus infections, with most new cases traced to the highly contagious variant first identified in Britain. The 84-year-old pope, the Vatican delegation and travelling media have been vaccinated; most Iraqis have not. 

Ahead of the pope's arrival Friday, dozens of men, women and children gathered in a Baghdad church, many not wearing masks or observing social distancing, before boarding buses to the airport to welcome the pontiff. 

(With AP)