Pope Francis: Historic visit to Iraq despite pandemic

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He arrived in Iraq today Pope Francis for a historic visit, under draconian protection measures despite the pandemic. The Pope will support one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, tested by conflict and persecution.

The 84-year-old pope, who has said he will make the first papal visit to Iraq in history as a “pilgrim of peace”, will shake hands with Shiite Muslims during a meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the supreme leader for Shiites. of Iraq and the world.

During the three-day visit, the pope will travel alone in the desert because of him lockdown roads, rebuilt for the occasion, in the country that recorded a record number of cases of the COVID-19 epidemic, with more than 5,000 per day.

The religious leader of the 1.3 billion Catholics in the world, will travel by armored vehicle, helicopter and plane, sometimes flying over lands that are still in the hands of Islamic State forces. The pope will have no contact with the crowd, as Iraqis will watch the visit on their televisions.

The program of the visit is ambitious. Baghdad, Najaf, Ur, Arbil, Mosul, Karakos: from today until Monday it will travel 1,445 kilometers in a country where rocket launches are not uncommon, according to AFP, citing AFP.

This pope’s first trip abroad in fifteen months will allow the pope to meet a small community of devout Christians on the fringes of the planet.

Saad al-Rasam, a Christian from Mosul who is still in the process of rebuilding after the war against Islamic State, hopes that “the pope will explain to the government that he must help its people,” in a country where the rate poverty rate has doubled to 40% in the last year.

“Everything except our faith”

As always, Pope Francis will begin his visit with a speech to members of the Iraqi leadership. In addition to the economic hardship and insecurity of the 40 million Iraqis, there will certainly be talk of further suffering for the country’s Christians.

When in 2014 Islamic State forces occupied the plain of Nineveh, a Christian area in the north Iraq, tens of thousands of residents have fled and since then do not trust the Iraqi security forces who abandoned them to their fate.

“Some had only a few minutes to decide if they wanted to leave or be beheaded,” recalls Father Karam Kasa.

“We have been forced to give up everything but our faith,” said the Chaldean priest from Nineveh, denouncing the government’s lack of help for Christians to regain their homes or land, which has been seized by members of armed groups or people. politician’s.

A hand to the Shiites

But according to Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the head of the Assembly of Eastern Churches in Vatican, which accompanies the pope, “a Middle East without Christians, is a Middle East that has flour, but not yeast and salt.”

That’s why Pope Francis will invite them to stay or return to Iraq, where they number 400,000, up from 1.5 million twenty years ago, he says.

Of the 102,000 Christians who left Nineveh, only 36,000 have returned. And of them, one third will leave by 2024 for fear of armed action and because of unemployment, corruption and discrimination.

A “mandatory” but “difficult” return, the cardinal admits, as Iraq has been defeated for the past 40 years by war in the political and economic crisis.

Tomorrow, for the first time in history, the pope will be received in the holy city of Najaf by the great ayatollah Ali Sistani, a 90-year-old fragile man who has never appeared in public.

The pope will attend a prayer service tomorrow in Ur, Abraham’s birthplace in southern Iraq, along with Shiites, Sunnis, Yazidis and Savai religious officials.

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