Baghdad (AP) – Pope Francis begins a four-day visit to Iraq this Friday. The 84-year-old is the first head of the Catholic Church to travel to the crisis country.
For many members of the suffering Christian community in the predominantly Muslim country, a long-cherished wish has been fulfilled. Due to the corona pandemic, the trip also raises questions. Francis wants to celebrate mass with thousands of believers in a stadium in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil. The number of new infections in Iraq is currently rising sharply again.
For Francis, it is the first trip abroad since the pandemic started more than a year ago. After his arrival in the capital Baghdad, meetings are planned for this afternoon with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kasimi and President Barham Salih. The 84-year-old also meets with representatives of civil society and the local church.
Francis wants to visit different regions of the country within four days. Highlights include a meeting with Iraq’s foremost Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Also on the program is an interfaith meeting in the plain of Ur, from which Abraham emerged according to biblical tradition. In the north, he wants to visit the city of Mosul, previously the main stronghold of the terrorist militia Islamic State (IS). He also meets Christians in the nearby town of Karakosch.
Persecution, war and economic hardship have caused the Christian community in Iraq, which once had more than a million believers, to shrink significantly in recent decades. It is estimated that there are between 250,000 and 400,000 Christians today. The country has a total of about 40 million inhabitants. Many members of the religious minority have long hoped for a papal visit and see this as a sign of hope.
During his general audience on Wednesday, Francis said that he had long wanted to get to know the people in Iraq who had suffered so much. He doesn’t want to disappoint her. “The Iraqi people have been waiting for John Paul II, who has been banned from travel. You cannot disappoint a people a second time. “
In the run-up to the trip, there was criticism because the already vaccinated Pope wants to visit Iraq in the middle of the pandemic. It was only this week that the number of new infections rose to a record high every day. The security situation has also deteriorated again. In January one of the worst IS attacks in years took place in Baghdad. In addition, Iranian Shia militias repeatedly fire missiles at the stationed US military to effect their withdrawal from Iraq.
As with previous trips, the emphasis should be on dialogue with other religions. Before leaving, Francis said he wanted to pray with brothers and sisters who had other religious practices – under the sign of Abraham, who united Muslims, Jews, and Christians into one family. The Pope visited the United Arab Emirates in 2019 and also met the high religious representative of Sunni Islam, Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tajjib.