Pope Francis begins “historic” visit to Iraq

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Von Friday March 5, 2021, Pope Francis kicked off a particularly historic trip to Iraq. He arrived in a “martyr land for years”, where he intends to comfort one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. The 84-year-old sovereign pontiff, who said he arrived as a “pilgrim of peace”, landed at 11 am GMT in Baghdad for a three-day visit during which he will also reach out to Muslims by meeting Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, highest authority for many Shiites in Iraq and the world.

The pope, masked, will often be alone on the roads, redone for the occasion, due to total containment decreed after the number of contaminations broke a record this week, with more than 5,000 cases of Covid- 19 surveyed per day. “I will try to follow the directions and not to give everyone’s hand, but I don’t want to stay far,” the Argentine Pope said on the plane. The leader of the 1.3 billion Catholics in the world, who said he was “in a cage” in recent months in a Vatican idling, said on the plane “happy to resume travel” after fifteen months without shifting. This is “a duty towards a martyred land for so many years”, he added.

Numerous security measures

It will be carried out without a walkabout and in an armored car or in the air for the Pope, whose helicopter or plane will sometimes fly over areas where jihadists from the Islamic State (IS) group are still hiding. The authorities in Baghdad have assured that they have taken all “land and air” security measures. “Iraq welcomes Pope Francis by reaffirming how deep their human ties are,” tweeted Prime Minister Moustafa al-Kazimi, who receives the Pope at the airport. The stages of the papal visit will bring together only a few hundred people, with the exception of a Sunday mass in a stadium in Erbil in Kurdistan, in the presence of several thousand faithful.

The program is ambitious. Baghdad, Najaf, Ur, Erbil, Mosul, Qaraqosh: from Friday to Monday, the Pope will travel 1,445 km in a country still struck Wednesday by deadly rocket fire, the latest episode in Iran-American tensions. Since then, however, one of the small groups that sometimes claim these attacks has announced a truce during the papal visit, welcoming Wednesday’s attack despite everything.

“Leave everything, except his faith”

For Saad al-Rassam, a Christian in Mosul, still in reconstruction after the war against ISIS, this trip is timely in this country whose poverty rate has doubled to 40% in 2020. “We hope that the Pope will explain to the government that he must help his people, ”he told Agence France-Presse.

As always, François will begin with a speech to the Iraqi leaders. Beyond the security or economic difficulties of the 40 million Iraqis, they will evoke the additional trauma of Christians. When, in 2014, ISIS took the Nineveh Plain, their northern stronghold, tens of thousands of them fled and few now trust the security forces who then abandoned them, say. they. “Some had a few minutes to decide whether they wanted to leave or be beheaded,” recalls Father Karam Qacha.

“We had to leave everything, except our faith”, sums up this Chaldean priest in Nineveh, denouncing the little help to Christians to recover their houses or their land, often monopolized by militiamen, sometimes Christians themselves or relatives of politicians. .

Outstretched hand to Shiism

But, laments Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches in the Vatican, “a Middle East without Christians is a Middle East which has flour but not leaven and salt”. This is why, he says, Pope Francis will not fail to call them to stay or return to Iraq, where they number 400,000, against 1.5 million in 2003.

A call to return “compulsory” but “difficult”, agrees Cardinal Sandri, so Iraq has been for forty years of war in political or economic crisis. According to the Aid to the Church in Need foundation, only 36,000 of the 102,000 Christians who left Nineveh have returned. Among them, a third say they want to emigrate because of the militia, unemployment, corruption and discrimination.

On Saturday, for the first time in history, the Pope will be received in Najaf (south) by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani himself, a frail man of 90 years old who has never appeared in public. The Pope will also participate in a prayer in Ur, birthplace of Abraham in the South, with Shiite, Sunni, Yazidi and Sabaean dignitaries.

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