In historic first, Pope Francis to visit Iraq
BAGHDAD: Pope Francis is to arrive Friday for the firstever papal visit to conflict-torn Iraq, aiming to encourage the dwindling Christian community to remain in their ancient homeland, and broaden his outreach to Islam.
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 Shiite Muslims. Despite a second deadly wave of coronavirus infections, renewed violence and notoriously poor public services, Francis is fulfilling the dream of a predecessor, late pope John Paul II, by visiting Iraq. Amid war and persecution, the country’s Christian community-one of the world’s oldest-has fallen from 1.5 million in 2003 to just 400,000 today. The 84-year-old pontiff, who will be on his first foreign trip since the start of the pandemic, plans to voice solidarity with them and the rest of Iraq’s 40 million people during a packed three-day visit.
From central Baghdad to the Shiite shrine city of Najaf, welcome banners featuring his 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.”
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-dictator Saddam Hussein, Christians made up around six percent 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 Organization. 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 the so-called Islamic State group seized control of Nineveh, rampaging through Christian towns and telling residents: convert or die. At the time, Pope Francis endorsed military action against IS and considered visiting northern Iraq in solidarity with Christians there. That trip never materialized, but Francis has kept a close eye on Iraq, condemning the killing of unarmed protesters during mass anti-government rallies from 2019.