VATICAN CITY–Rockets have hit Iraqi cities and COVID-19 has flared, yet, barring last-minute changes, Pope Francis will embark on a whirlwind four-day trip starting on Friday to show solidarity with the country’s devastated Christian community.
Keen to get on the road again after the pandemic put paid to several planned trips, he convinced some perplexed Vatican aides that it is worth the risk and that, in any case, his mind was made up, three Vatican sources said.
“He is itching to get back out on the road after such a long period,” said one Vatican official. “Despite some misgivings, the general mood in here is that all systems are go.”
The March 5-8 trip will be Francis’s first outside Italy since November 2019, when he visited Thailand and Japan. Four trips planned for 2020 were cancelled because of COVID-19.
“He really feels that need to reach out to people on their home ground,” said the official, a Vatican prelate who is familiar with Iraq and who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Vatican officials and local Church leaders say they are satisfied that Iraqi forces will be able to provide adequate security for the pope and his entourage.
“The pope knows where he is going. He is deliberately coming to an area marked by war and violence to bring a message of peace,” Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil told reporters on a recent conference call.
“The authorities are taking the pope’s security very seriously, with 10,000 security personnel deployed for the purpose,” he said.
First visit by a pope
Conflict in Iraq, birthplace of the Prophet Abraham – who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews – made a trip by Francis’s predecessors elusive.
But while wars have ended, violence continues.
A twin suicide attack in Baghdad killed at least 32 people in January. The pope condemned the bombings.
Last Monday, rockets hit Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, which hosts government buildings and foreign embassies. There were no casualties.
Another shadow hanging over the trip is the coronavirus pandemic, which, along with security measures, will drastically limit the number of people who will see the pope in person.
Officials banned most travel within provinces after more than 4,000 new cases were detected on Thursday, for a total of more than 600,000 cases so far.
Francis, 84, has said it is important to make the trip even if most Iraqi Christians will see him only on television.
“They will see the pope is there in their country,” he told Catholic News Service last month, adding: “I am the pastor of people who are suffering.”
Several Vatican and Iraqi Church officials say they are doing everything possible to ensure that papal appearances do not turn out to be super-spreader events.
The pope and his entourage, including the accompanying press corps, have been vaccinated. But most people who will attend papal events have not. A first batch of 50,000 doses is due to arrive in Iraq from China on Monday.
Two gatherings at churches in Baghdad will be limited to about 100 people each, with social distancing and masks required.
Up to 10,000 people will have numbered seats for a papal Mass in a stadium in Erbil that has a capacity of 30,000, and contact tracing will be possible if there is an outbreak, Warda said.
Vatican and Iraqi planners of the trip got a sobering reminder of the spread of coronavirus in Iraq on Saturday when Archbishop Mitja Leskovar, the Vatican’s ambassador there, said he had tested positive and had gone into self-isolation.
Leskovar has been the key planner of the trip and he had been due to be at the pope’s side throughout the visit.
“This is not going to influence the pope’s programme, which is going on as planned,” Leskovar said.
For security reasons and so as not to draw crowds, the pope will use a closed car and not a popemobile on the streets, a Vatican source said.
Among the most extraordinary moments of the trip will be his one-on-one meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highly reclusive cleric, who is a top religious authority for many of the world’s Shia Muslims.
The 84-year-old pontiff, who will be on his first foreign trip since the start of the pandemic, plans to voice solidarity with the country’s Christian community — one of the world’s oldest — and the rest of Iraq’s 40 million people during the packed three-day visit.
Amid war and persecution, the Christian community in Iraq has fallen from 1.5 million in 2003 to just 400,000 today.
From central Baghdad to the Shia shrine city of Najaf, welcome banners featuring the pope’s image and Arabic title “Baba al-Vatican” already dot the streets.
From Ur, the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham in the southern desert, to ravaged Christian towns in the north, roads are being paved and churches rehabilitated in remote areas that have never seen such a high-profile visitor.
“The pope’s message is that the Church stands beside those who suffer,” said Najeeb Michaeel, Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of the northern city of Mosul.
“He will have powerful words for Iraq, where crimes against humanity have been committed.”
World’s oldest Christian community
Iraq’s Christian community is one of the oldest and most diverse in the world, with Chaldeans and other Catholics making up around half, along with Armenian Orthodox, Protestants and others.
By 2003, when the US-led invasion toppled then-president Saddam Hussein, Christians made up around 6% of Iraq’s 25 million people.
But even as sectarian violence pushed members of the minority to flee, the national population surged, further diluting Christians to just one percent, according to William Warda, co-founder of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organisation.
Most were concentrated in the northern province of Nineveh, where many still speak a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.
In 2014, jihadists from ISIS seized control of Nineveh, rampaging through Christian towns and telling residents: convert or die.
At the time, Pope Francis endorsed military action against ISIS and considered visiting northern Iraq in solidarity with Christians there.
That trip never materialised, but Francis has kept a close eye on Iraq, condemning the killing of unarmed protesters during mass anti-government rallies from 2019.
– A long time coming –
Pope John Paul II had planned to visit Iraq in 2000 but Saddam Hussein abruptly cancelled the trip. His successor Benedict XVI never made moves towards Baghdad.
Soon after Francis was elected pope in 2013, he was urged to visit Iraq by Father Louis Sako — later appointed as Cardinal and the head of the Chaldean Catholic Church and now a key organiser of the visit.
In 2019, Iraqi President Barham Salih extended an official invitation, hoping to help Iraq “heal” after years of violence.
But as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged Italy, the pope cancelled all foreign trips from June 2020.
Pope Francis is an outspoken proponent of interfaith efforts and has visited several Muslim-majority countries including Bangladesh, Turkey, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.
In Abu Dhabi in 2019, he met Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the imam of the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, a key authority for Sunni Muslims. They signed a document encouraging Christian-Muslim dialogue.
Francis hopes this week’s trip could open a similar door to Shia Muslims, who number roughly 200 million worldwide but are the majority in Iraq. As part of that effort, he will meet the top cleric for many Shias, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, at his humble home in Najaf.
Sako said in January the pope hoped Sistani would endorse the same “Abu Dhabi” treatise, but clerical sources in Najaf have denied this.
Still, the encounter will be a key moment in an emblematic trip.
“It’s a historic visit — we’re talking about the head of a religious sect that is followed by 20 percent of the world’s population,” Najaf governor Luay al-Yasserit said.
“His visit means a lot. His visit to His Holiness, the top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, will have a huge impact.”