ROME: International media are following the pope’s visit to Iraq with enormous interest. Seventy-five journalists will travel aboard the special flight that will take the leader of the Catholic Church from Rome to Baghdad — almost double the number normally allowed on a papal flight. In addition, hundreds of reporters and camera crews will follow his visit on the ground.
“This is certainly a historic journey. Francis is the first pope to go to Iraq, and he’ll be the first head of the Christian Church to enter the house of Abraham in Ur, where the history of Christianity began,” Manuela Tulli, Vatican correspondent for ANSA — Italy’s main news agency — told Arab News.
She has been covering Pope Francis since he was elected in 2013. Though this will be her first visit to Iraq, it will be her sixth trip as an embedded reporter following him.
This journey “could change the history of interreligious dialogue,” and “may represent a historic turning point for Iraq,” she said.
“The pope will go to that country in the middle of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, of course, there’s the problem of security in Iraq.”
Pope Francis has expressed an interest in visiting the country and the Christians who live there since he was elected.
“The pope wants to go. He wants to send a message of peace to a land tormented by war and divisions,” Tulli said.
“He wants to go and say ‘basta’ (‘enough’) of war and violence. He isn’t afraid of the pandemic or any security issue.”
She said of the 75 journalists embedded with him, and the nearly 50 members of his entourage: “We’re on the same plane as the pope, and the Vatican has chosen the hotels where we’ll stay. We won’t be able to go around on our own. Also because the program is so tight, there will be no time to do anything else. We’ll have to stick to him around the clock.”
The pope is due to arrive in Baghdad on March 5, and will be welcomed by Iraq’s prime minister. He will then visit the country’s president at the presidential palace, where he will meet with local authorities, representatives of civil society and the diplomatic corps.
He will also meet with bishops and priests at the Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad.
On March 6, he will fly to the city of Najaf and meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. The pope will return to Baghdad that day and celebrate Holy Mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of St. Joseph.
On March 7 he will visit Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and meet with religious and civil authorities of the autonomous region. He will also visit the city of Qaraqosh. His return to Rome is scheduled for March from Baghdad.
“I expect Christians in Iraq will be particularly impressed to see the pope pronounce the Angelus, the Sunday prayer, from the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh, which Daesh used as a shooting range for its militiamen,” said Tulli.
“I’m sure that Francis will say a word of hope for those who’ve lived through terrible moments due to Daesh,” she added.
“The inter-religious prayer at Ur will be exciting. That moment will be like the closing of a circle for history.”