Pope Francis. Image Credit: Reuters

Dubai: Pope Francis will land in Iraq Friday in a historic visit, the first ever by a head of the Catholic Church to the Arab country, which is home to a sizeable Christian community that has seen its numbers decline significantly in the past two decades as the nation plunged into wars and terrorism following the 2003 US invasion.

The four-day visit, which is taking place despite the health concerns raised by some due to the coronavirus situation and the fragile security conditions in Iraq, comes at a crucial time for a country that is very much in need for unity and social peace, according to Iraq and Vatican officials.

“The visit comes at a critical but also a historic juncture for the Iraqi state and its people as we turn the page of confronting the menace of terror groups, especially Daesh, and also as we live in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic,” said Ahmed Al Sahaf, the official Spokesman at the Iraqi Foreign Ministry,

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“It also sends a message that Iraq will always remain an open and multilateral nation,” he told Gulf News in an interview over the phone from Baghdad. Al Sahaf is also the spokesperson for the organising committee of the Pope’s visit.

Pilgrim of peace
On the eve of the Pope's visit to Iraq, the 84-year-old offered his hand to "brothers and sisters of other religions", but also highlighted the heavy toll paid by Iraq's Christian communities, saying there had been "too many martyrs".

"I long to meet you, to see your faces, to visit your land, ancient and extraordinary cradle of civilisation," the pope said, the day before his three-day trip.

"I come as a pilgrim, a penitent pilgrim to implore forgiveness and reconciliation from the Lord after years of war and terrorism."

Pope Francis will arrive in Baghdad on Friday, where he will be offered an official reception at the Al Salam Palace by President Saleh Barham and leaders of the country’s political blocks and senior officials, Al Sahaf said.

On Saturday, the Pope will move to Najaf, the Shiite holy city to meet with the Influential cleric Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the highest authority among the world’s Shiite Muslims. On the same day, the Pope is scheduled to visit the ancient city of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, the father of the three religions, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. On Sunday, the Pope will be visiting Erbil, where he will hold a public mass at a sports stadium and then Mosul, and Qaraqosh before he departs Iraq on Monday.

‘Visit to boost social peace’

Bishop Paul Hinder

The Pope, who has made a number of visits to the Arab world in recent years, to Egypt, the UAE and Morocco, is keen on visiting Iraq because he feels that it is critical at this time “to encourage the Christian community, especially the Chaldeans and help them” weather the turbulences in their homeland, Bishop Paul Hinder, the Apostolic Vicar of the Vicariate of Southern Arabia and Administrator of the Vicariate of Northern Arabia, the UAE-based Vatican representative, told Gulf News in an interview.

The Pope will be carrying “an important message of hope and reconciliation to a country where there has been so much of hatred and antagonism,” Bishop Hinder said.

Al Sahaf noted that it was important for “the different [minority] religions in Iraq that bore the brunt of terrorism and succeeded in defeating it through unity.” This visit “will greatly boost the social peace and the cause of unity in the country,” he stressed.

Ancient Christian communities

Mainly Muslim Iraq, with a population of nearly 40 million, is home to several ancient Christian communities, who now number an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 from the 1.5 million who lived in the country before the 2003 invasion. There are 14 officially recognised Christian sects in the country, most of whom live in Baghdad, the northern Nineveh Plains province and the autonomous Kurdistan region.

Iraq security Pope visit
Iraqi security forces patrol around the Cathedral of Saint Joseph during preparations for the Pope's visit in Iraq's capital Baghdad on March 3, 2021. Image Credit: AFP

The main communities are the Chaldeans, the Syriacs, the Assyrians, the Armenians and Arab Christians. There are also three Greek Orthodox and four Coptic Orthodox churches in Baghdad and 57 Roman Catholic churches across the country, as well as a small number of Protestants.

Tens of thousands of Christians fled Iraq, mostly to the West, fearful of the sectarian strife and the reign of terror groups that took over some of their areas between 2006 and 2017.

Message of solidarity

The Pope will have a strong message of solidarity with the community, Bishop Hinder said, to urge them to stay. “Christians have played an important part in the region culturally and socially. The Pope wants to remind them of this fact to stay,” he added.

According to the Vatican News, the official news portal of the Holy See, the Pontiff “wants to encourage those who are steadfast in the land of their ancestors in spite of the successive disasters especially during his scheduled visit to the city of Erbil, where there are currently good numbers of forcibly displaced people from Mosul and the towns of the Nineveh Plain.”

In addition to this vital message, Bishop Hinder said the Pope’s visit is important on other levels. “Considering the situation in Iraq as a whole, [the visit] is a message of peace to remind all those involved in the renewing of their country to remain united in rebuilding it.”

Pope Francis poster Iraq
A worker hangs a poster welcoming Pope Francis outside the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Iraq's capital Baghdad on March 3, 2021. Pope Francis is set to be in Iraq from March 5 to 8 with an ambitious programme that will take him around the country. Image Credit: AFP

Visit to UAE

Secondly, he said, it is important as the Pope seeks to continue his endeavour to reach out to the Muslim world, the highlight of which was his historic visit to the UAE exactly two years ago. In the UAE, the Pope and the Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayyeb, signed “The Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”.

“The visit to Abu Dhabi upon the invitation of the UAE leadership was the first step in his endeavour to reach out and begin dialogue with the Muslim world,” Bishop Hinder said. Both the Pope and the Grand Imam wanted to emphasise “that we have to go forward in building a common conscious, a common concept as human family regardless of our different faiths.”

Pope Francis  Ali Al Sistani Iraq
Iraqis put up a poster announcing the upcoming visit of the Pope Francis and a meeting with Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, in Najaf, Iraq, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. Image Credit: AP

Thirdly, Bishop Hinder said, the meeting with Al Sistani is important to engage with the world’s Shiites. The Pope has done a lot in the dialogue with the Sunni world, he said, “it is about time he reached out to the Shiites.” Al Sahaf also emphasised the importance of the Najaf meeting, saying it represented a milestone in his country’s history. “The Najaf meeting is about humanity’s need for a civilised, tolerant and uniting discourse,” especially in Iraq, which suffered for years from hatred and extremism.

Both Al Sahaf and Bishop Hinder dismissed the concerns raised in the west over the timing of the visit to Iraq due to the rising COVID-19 infection rate and the recent attacks by armed militias in the north and western parts of the country.

First trip outside Italy since November 2019

The Iraq trip will be the Pope’s first outside Italy since November 2019, when he visited Thailand and Japan. Four trips planned for 2020 were cancelled because of COVID-19.

The risk is always there, said Bishop Hinder. However, “the time is always right to visit and meet with the Christian community. The people there have been waiting for him; they expect to see him.” He said, on the contrary, the visit comes at “the right time” to meet with the community “when they are most vulnerable because of the pandemic and security.” He said he was confident that all sufficient measures are being taken to minimise any potential risk.

Al Sahaf said all government entities are in complete readiness to receive the Pope. “All measures are being taken such as social distancing, wearing facemasks and the deployment of makeshift hospitals in all places that he will be visiting and conducting services.”

The visit, he stressed, is happening due to the strong will of the Pope and the Iraqi people. “There is an atmosphere of mass joy and unity in the country.”