Pope Francis yesterday began a historic trip to war-battered Iraq, defying security fears and the COVID-19 pandemic to comfort one of the world’s oldest and most persecuted Christian communities.
The 84-year-old, who said he was making the first-ever papal visit to Iraq as a “pilgrim of peace,” would also reach out to Shiite Muslims when he meets Iraq’s top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
The pope left Rome early yesterday for the four-day journey, his first abroad since the onset of the pandemic, which left the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics saying he felt “caged” inside the Vatican.
While Francis has been vaccinated, Iraq has been gripped by a second wave with a record of more than 5,000 new cases per day, prompting authorities to impose full lockdowns during the pontiff’s visit.
Security would be tight in Iraq, which has endured years of war and insurgency, is still hunting for Islamic State sleeper cells, and days ago saw a barrage of rockets plough into a military base.
Francis would preside over a half-dozen services in ravaged churches, refurbished stadiums and remote desert locations, where attendance would be limited to allow for social distancing.
Inside the country, he would travel more than 1,400km by plane and helicopter, flying over areas where security forces are still battling Islamic State remnants.
For shorter trips, Francis would take an armored vehicle on freshly paved roads that would be lined with flowers and posters welcoming the leader known here as “Baba al-Vatican.”
The pope’s visit has deeply touched Iraq’s Christians, whose numbers have collapsed over years of persecution and sectarian violence, from 1.5 million in 2003 to fewer than 400,000 today.
“We’re hoping the pope will explain to the government that it needs to help its people,” said a Christian from Iraq’s north, Saad al-Rassam. “We have suffered so much, we need the support.”
The first day of the pope’s ambitious itinerary would see him meet government officials and clerics in the capital Baghdad, including at the Our Lady of Salvation church, where a jihadist attack left dozens dead in 2010.
He would also visit the northern province of Nineveh, where in 2014 militants forced minorities to flee, convert to Islam or be put to death.
“People had only a few minutes to decide if they wanted to leave or be decapitated,” said Karam Qacha, a Chaldean Catholic priest in Nineveh. “We left everything — except our faith.”
About 100,000 Christians — about half of those who lived in the province — fled, of whom just 36,000 have returned, according to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
Among the returnees, a third have said they want to leave again in coming years, dismayed by Iraq’s rampant corruption, persecution and poverty, which affects 40 percent of the population.
The exodus is a loss for all of Iraq, said Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for the Oriental Churches and would accompany the pope to Iraq.
“A Middle East without Christians is like trying to make bread with flour, but no yeast or salt,” he said.
The visit aims to encourage Christians to stay in their homeland, and prompt some emigres to return from nearby Lebanon and Jordan, or further afield like Canada and Australia.
In a video address ahead of the trip, Francis evoked “the wounds of loved ones left behind and homes abandoned,” saying there had been “too many martyrs” in Iraq.
“I come as a pilgrim, a penitent pilgrim to implore forgiveness and reconciliation from the Lord after years of war and terrorism,” he said.
The pope has insisted on the visit despite resurging violence.
Rocket attacks across the country have left three people dead in the past few weeks, including a US contractor who died on Wednesday.
Francis’ determination to travel to areas long shunned by foreign dignitaries has impressed many in Iraq — as has his planned meeting with al-Sistani, 90, the top authority for Iraq’s Shiites.
A highly reclusive figure who rarely accepts visitors, al-Sistani would make an exception to host Francis at his home in the shrine city of Najaf today.
Banners around Najaf have celebrated “the historic encounter, between the minarets and the church bells.”
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