Pope Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday, urging the country’s dwindling Christian population to stay put and help rebuild the country after years of war and persecution, ignoring the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns to make his first papal visit.
Iraqis were eager to welcome him and the international attention that his visit will bring, with banners and posters adorning central Baghdad and billboards depicting Francis with the slogan “We are all Brothers” adorning the main thoroughfare. A mock tree with the Vatican emblem was erected in central Tahrir Square, and Iraqi and Vatican flags lined empty streets.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein described Francis’ visit as a historic meeting between the “minaret and the bells,” saying Iraqis were eager to welcome his “message of peace and tolerance.” Francis’ private meeting with the country’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered figure in Iraq and beyond, is one of the highlights of the three-day visit.
Just before 2 p.m. local time, Francis’ plane landed at Baghdad’s airport (1100 GMT).
After years of wars and militant attacks that continue to this day, the government is eager to show off the relative security it has achieved. Francis and the Vatican delegation are being protected by Iraqi security forces, including the use of an armoured car for the popemobile-obsessed pontiff.
Security forces have been increased, according to Tahsin al-Khafaji, spokesman for Iraq’s joint operations.
“This visit is extremely important to us and gives us a unique perspective on Iraq, as the entire world will be watching,” he said. The high stakes will provide Iraqi forces with “motivation to complete this visit in a safe and peaceful manner.”
Francis is breaking his year-long COVID-19 fast to refocus the world’s attention on a people who have been largely forgotten, whose northern Christian communities, which date back to the time of Christ, were largely emptied during the violent Islamic State’s reign of terror from 2014 to 2017.
Iraq’s persecuted Christians are the epitome of the “martyred church,” according to the pope, who has travelled to places where Christians are a persecuted minority “Since he was a young Jesuit aspiring to be a missionary in Asia, he has admired them.
In Iraq, Francis is hoping to not only pay tribute to the country’s martyrs, but also to spread a message of peace and brotherhood. The few Christians who remain in Iraq harbour lingering mistrust of their Muslim neighbours and are subjected to structural discrimination that predates both IS and the 2003 US-led invasion that threw the country into chaos.
The Chaldean patriarch, Cardinal Luis Sako, told reporters in Baghdad this week that the Pope’s visit is to encourage Christians in Iraq to stay and to let them know that they are not forgotten. Francis’ visit is intended to encourage them to “hold onto hope,” he said.
The visit coincides with a new surge in coronavirus infections in Iraq, with the majority of new cases linked to a highly contagious variant first identified in the United Kingdom. Most Iraqis have not been vaccinated, including the 84-year-old Pope, the Vatican delegation, and travelling journalists.
Hundreds of men, women, and children gathered in a Baghdad church ahead of the pope’s arrival Friday, many without masks or social distancing, before boarding buses to the airport to greet the pontiff.
The Vatican and Iraqi authorities have downplayed the virus’s threat, insisting instead on social isolation, crowd control, and other health-care measures. Matteo Bruni, a Vatican spokesman, said this week that the most important thing for Iraqis to understand is that the pope’s visit to the country was a “act of love.”
Francis said in a video message to the Iraqi people on the eve of his visit, “I come among you as a pilgrim of peace, to repeat “you are all brothers.” “I come as a peace pilgrim seeking fraternity, inspired by a desire to pray and walk together with brothers and sisters of other religious traditions.”
Christians used to be a significant minority in Iraq, but after the 2003 US-led invasion, their numbers began to dwindle. When IS militants swept through traditionally Christian towns across the Nineveh plains in 2014, they fell even further. Residents were forced to flee to the neighbouring Kurdish region or further afield due to their extremist brand of Islam.
Few people have returned, and those who have discovered their homes and churches have been destroyed.
Returnees have had to face more difficulties. Many people are unable to find work and blame discriminatory practises in Iraq’s largest employer, the government. Since 2003, majority Shiite political elites have dominated public jobs, leaving Christians feeling marginalised.
While exact figures are difficult to come by, an estimated 1.4 million Christians lived in Iraq in 2003. The current estimate is that there are around 250,000 people.
Francis will pray in a Baghdad church that was the scene of one of the worst Christian massacres in history, a 2010 attack by Islamic militants that killed 58 people. In a Mosul square surrounded by the shells of destroyed churches, he will pay tribute to the dead and meet with the small Christian community that has returned to Qaraqosh. He’ll bless their church, which IS turned into a shooting range.
The Vatican and the Pope have repeatedly emphasised the importance of preserving Iraq’s ancient Christian communities and providing the security, economic, and social conditions that will allow those who have fled to return. However, this hasn’t always translated into reality.
“In Mosul, I am the only priest. I hold mass every Sunday at 9 a.m., and only about 70 people show up “The Rev. Raed Adil Kelo, parish priest of the Church of the Annunciation in the former de-facto IS capital, echoed this sentiment.
According to him, the Christian population was 50,000 in 2003. Before IS overran northern Iraq, the number had dwindled to 2,000.
He doesn’t expect many more to return, but he believes Francis’ visit will be life-changing for those who stay.
He stated, “This visit will bring peace to Iraq.“
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