Pope Francis landed in Iraq Friday to begin his historic trip to the war-battered country, defying security fears and the pandemic to comfort one of the world’s oldest and most persecuted Christian communities.
The pope, who wore a mask during the flight, kept it on as he descended the stairs to the tarmac and was greeted by two masked children in traditional dress.
A red carpet was rolled out on the tarmac at Baghdad’s international airport with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on hand to greet him.
The 84-year-old, who said he is making his first-ever papal visit to Iraq as a “pilgrim of peace,” will also reach out to Shiite Muslims when he meets Iraq’s top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
The four-day journey is the pope’s first abroad since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which left the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics saying he felt “caged” inside the Vatican.
While Francis has been vaccinated, Iraq has been gripped by a second wave with a record of over 5,000 new cases a day, prompting authorities to impose full lockdowns during the pontiff’s visit.
Security was tight in Iraq, a country that is still hunting for Islamic State (IS) group sleeper cells after years of war and insurgency. Only days ago, a barrage of rockets ploughed into a military base hosting US troops.
Hundreds of people had gathered along the airport road with hopes of catching a glimpse of the pope’s plane touching down.
Iraqis were keen to welcome him and the global attention his visit will bring, with banners and posters hanging high in central Baghdad, and billboards depicting Francis with the slogan “We are all Brothers” decorating the main thoroughfare.
Services in ravaged churches, refurbished stadiums
Francis will preside over a half-dozen services in ravaged churches, refurbished stadiums and remote desert locations, where attendance will be limited to allow for social distancing.
Inside the country, he will travel more than 1,400 kilometres (870 miles) by plane and helicopter, flying over areas where security forces are still battling IS remnants.
For shorter trips, Francis will take an armoured car on freshly paved roads that will be lined with flowers and posters welcoming the leader known here as “Baba Al-Vatican”.
The pope’s visit has deeply touched Iraq’s Christians, whose numbers have collapsed over years of persecution and sectarian violence, from 1.5 million in 2003 to fewer than 400,000 today.
“We’re hoping the pope will explain to the government that it needs to help its people,” a Christian from Iraq’s north, Saad al-Rassam, told AFP. “We have suffered so much, we need the support.”
‘Too many martyrs’
The first day of the pope’s ambitious itinerary will see him meet government officials and clerics in the capital Baghdad, including at the Our Lady of Salvation church, where a jihadist attack left dozens dead in 2010.
He will also visit the northern province of Nineveh, where in 2014 IS jihadists forced minorities to either flee, convert to Islam or be put to death.
“People had only a few minutes to decide if they wanted to leave or be decapitated,” recalled Karam Qacha, a Chaldean Catholic priest in Nineveh.
“We left everything — except our faith.”
Some 100,000 Christians — around half of those who lived in the province — fled, of whom just 36,000 have returned, according to Catholic charity “Aid to the Church in Need”.
Among the returnees, a third have said they want to leave again in coming years, dismayed by Iraq’s rampant corruption, persecution and poverty, which now affects 40 percent of the population.
The exodus is a loss for all of Iraq, said Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for the Oriental Churches and will accompany the pope to Iraq.
“A Middle East without Christians is like trying to make bread with flour, but no yeast or salt,” he said.
The visit aims not only to encourage Christians to stay in their homeland, but even prompt some emigres to return from nearby Lebanon and Jordan, or further afield like Canada and Australia.
In a video address ahead of the trip, Francis evoked “the wounds of loved ones left behind and homes abandoned,” saying there had been “too many martyrs” in Iraq.
“I come as a pilgrim, a penitent pilgrim to implore forgiveness and reconciliation from the Lord after years of war and terrorism.”
‘Minarets and church bells’
The pope has insisted on the visit despite resurging violence.
Rocket attacks across the country have left three people dead in recent weeks, including a US contractor who died Wednesday.
Francis’ determination to travel to areas long shunned by foreign dignitaries has impressed many in Iraq — as has his planned meeting with Sistani, 90, the top authority for Iraq’s Shiites.
A highly reclusive figure who rarely accepts visitors, Sistani will make an exception to host Francis at his humble home in the shrine city of Najaf on Saturday.
Banners all over Najaf have celebrated “the historic encounter, between the minarets and the church bells”.
Francis, a major supporter of inter-religious dialogue, will afterwards head to the desert site of Ur, where Abraham is thought to have been born.
There, he will host an interfaith service that will bring together not only the Abrahamic religions but also include followers of other beliefs, including Yazidis and Sabeans.
The Pope’s programme in Iraq includes visits to the cities of Baghdad, Najaf, Ur, Mosul, Qaraqosh and Erbil. He will traverse some 1,445 km in a country where Iraqi-American tensions still linger and where more recently the scourge of Covid-19 has led to record numbers of infections.
Pope Francis will travel in an armoured car to avoid the customary crowds that flock to catch a glimpse of the leader of the Catholic Church. At times he will be required to travel either by helicopter or plane over areas where jihadists belonging to the Islamic State group are still present.
Proceedings kick off Friday with a speech to Iraqi leaders in Baghdad, addressing the security and economic difficulties confronting Iraq’s 40 million people. The pope is also expected to mention the persecution of the country’s Christian minority.
On Saturday he will visit the holy city of Najaf, where he will be hosted by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest authority for many Shiites in Iraq and the world.
The pope will make a trip to the ancient city of Ur, the birthplace, according to the Bible, of the prophet Abraham, a figure common to the three monotheistic religions. There he will pray with Muslims, Yazidis and Sanaeans (pre-Christian monotheisms).
Francis will continue his journey on Sunday in the province of Nineveh (northern Iraq), the cradle of Iraqi Christians. He will then head to Mosul and Qaraqoch, two cities marked by the destruction of the Islamic extremists.
The pontiff will conclude his tour by presiding over an open-air Mass on Sunday in the presence of thousands of Christians in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. This Kurdish Muslim stronghold has offered refuge to hundreds of thousands of Christians, Yazidis and Muslims who fled the atrocities of the Islamic State group.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)