Last Friday Pope Francis departed Rome for a historic apolsitic visit to Iraq. Many have expressed concern for the visit following a recent rise in Covis-19 cases and a series of rocket attacks in the country. Pope John Paul II had cancelled a trip to the region in 2002 after talks with Saddam Hissein disintegrated without agreement. Pope Francis seemed determined for the trip to go ahead despite the difficult circumstances and precedent.The Christian population in Iraq has been persecuted for many years falling from over a million before the US invasion in 2003 to approximately 200,000 now. Pope Francis has called the visit an “act of love” towards the minority Christian population and that the; “ the people cannot be let down for a second time”.
On Friday the Pope was greeted with an official welcome ceremony of song and dance at the Presidential Palace in Baghdad. A courtesy visit to the President was followed by a meeting with bishops, priests and the religious at the Sro-Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation. Islamist gunmen had killed 50 chrisitans in the church in 2010, the Pope paid tribute to those killed emphaiseing that “ violence or the shedding of blood is incompatible with authentic religious teaching”
On Saturday the papal Entourage travelled to Najaf for a symbolic and historic meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Pope Francis 84, leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani 90, head of million of Shia muslims spoke for 50 minutes.
The striking footage of Sistani dressed in black and Francis dressed in white affimed the sentiment of interfaith communication from the two men. Sistani said in a statement;, “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights”.Pope Francis thanked his counterpart and echoed this message saying that Christian should be allowed to live peacefully like all other Iraqis.This meeting was a powerful moment in modern church history and a continuation of the Pope’s commitment to inter faith dialogue.
After the meeting concluded the Paapal entourage travelled to the ancient city of Ur believed to be the birthplace of the biblical leader Abraham.Here the Pope met and spoke with representatives of Iraq’s assorted religious communities, making a passionate plea for “unity”. The Pope then returned to Baghdad and celebrated mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Baghdad.
On Sunday Pope Francis travelled by helicopter to the town of Qaraqosh where he visited the Qaraqosh community at the Church of the Immaculate Conception The small community had been devastated by the Islamic State in 2014 and many families have not returned to the area. Pope Francis prayed in a church that had been burned down by ISIS and restored in recent years.
On Sunday afternoon the Pope returned to Erbil where he celebrated Holy Mass in the Franso Hariri stadium.This city in the Kurdish Region offered refuge and safely to Christians fleeing persecution for more than decade.Pope Francis thanked the community saying; “You have protected Christian communities when Isis attacked.”.
His address drew over 10,000 people despite Covid concerns. He also met the father of the drowned toddler Alan Kurdi who became a symbol of the plight of migrants.The message of hope and tolerance that the Pope brought to the region has been welcomed by all across the political and religious spectrum in a country that has often been the centre of regional struggles.
On Monday morning the Pope attended a farewell ceremony and departed back to Rome to the relief of the security services. The Pope had changed from his usual open top transport for the trip instead travelling in a bulletproof BMW through the region.It is reported that 10,000 extra troops had been deployed and specialist groups on standby. Officials told reporters that the troops had been trained to deal with worse case scenarios such as explosions or rocket attacks.Undercover intelligence officers were present in the crowds at events and technical teams monitored suspicious phone calls and radio signals.
The region has been experiencing a rise in Covid cases in recent weeks. The Pope and his entourage were all vaccinated and Iraq received their first supply of vaccines the previous week.
Despite these problems and concerns the trip was deemed a success as joyous images and interfaith dialogue that were the focus of the trip enforced the Pope's message of diversity and hope that is anticipated to bring the region closer together after decades of persecution and fighting.