Pope Francis’ planned trip to Iraq raises safety and health concerns


Much rests on the shoulders of Pope Francis. There are so many hopes pinned on his historic trip to Iraq.

Add to the formidable pressure to lift spirits in a war-torn country, there is a very real terrorist threat. And a raging pandemic. On Friday, the pontiff heads to a country where ISIS tried to eliminate Christians not so long ago. You will visit places that have been devastated, you will visit places that have historical significance for Christians, and some of your stops will be both.

“In every part of the country that Pope Francis will visit there are scars: scars of war, of loss, of trauma,” Mina Al-Oraibi, editor-in-chief of the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National, wrote in her newspaper last week. . . “Today Iraq is a battlefield that fights against terrorism, corruption, COVID-19, militias and foreign intervention that seek to weaken the country at all levels. Despite these wars, or perhaps despite them , the Pope has decided to embark on a journey that will take him across the country and reinforce the historical and natural place of Christians in Iraq and the Arab world. “

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For an 84-year-old man who lost part of a lung when he was 21, this is an undertaking.

Pope Francis will be the first Pope to visit Iraq. He has been vaccinated and the journalists who accompany him have also been vaccinated, but the people on the ground have not. Vaccines in Iraq have yet to be implemented. The papal nuncio in Baghdad, the ambassador of the Holy See in the country, has just suffered from COVID-19. He had been the key person on land for this trip.

For health risks, as well as security concerns, the Pope’s visit to Iraq was at stake for some time. A twin suicide bombing in Baghdad in January killed 32 people. The Pope goes on.

“I am a pastor of people who are suffering,” he said.

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The Pope will have to give up his beloved Popemobile for security reasons, but that hasn’t dampened anticipation on the ground. Preparations for the trip are documented day by day. As Al-Oraibi pointed out, relatively few dignitaries visit Iraq and when they do, it is often kept secret until they are on the ground. They are likely to remain in the Green Zone or other fortified locations. On the contrary, the Vatican published the Pope’s itinerary well in advance.

You will visit the Church of Our Lady of Salvation, which was attacked by six suicide bombers in 2010. You will visit Mosul, which ISIS took over in 2014 and maintained until 2017 and where the terrorist organization caused devastation, destroying or damaging among other valuable properties. a group of churches – Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Chaldean Catholic – known locally as Church Square. ISIS used the property to judge people, imprison them and for administrative work.

The Pope will visit what remains of the compound and the symbolism will be powerful. Father Raed Adel is the last priest to live in Mosul.

“This site was used as a main center by the ISIS religious police,” Adel said. “A center of Islamic State leadership. So this is an important issue, the Pope’s visit to this site that was the central administrative center of the Islamic State. This is where the Islamic State said ‘we are going to go to Rome, occupy Rome and they cut off the Pope’s head. ‘

Iraq’s Christian community is only one-fifth the size it was when the 2003 war began. Optimists hope the Pope’s visit will help attract exiled Christians to return.

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A woman in Baghdad put it this way: “This visit gives us hope to adhere to our land and our country despite the suffering we have experienced, the murders, kidnappings, massacres against Christians and churches and the theft of [Christian-owned] ownership that continues to this day, “said Aklas Bahnam.” But this visit will encourage many of our Christians abroad to be optimistic and hope they can return. “

The head of the Chaldean Catholic Church said it will take more than a papal visit to bring the Christians back in droves.

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“Christians, [the Pope] It will encourage them to persevere, to persevere and also to rebuild trust with their neighbors, “said Louis Raphaël I Sako.” Encouraging people to come back is not their job. This is the government’s job to create good conditions for them, security and also, you know, jobs, etc. Some people may return when conditions are normal and life is fair and dignified. And this can only be when Iraq has a democratic regime and is also based on citizenship and to separate religion from the state. “

Planners are doing their best to ensure that social distancing is observed and some of the church services will be small. But apparently 10,000 people are registered for an event planned for a stadium in Erbil, raising fears that a well-intentioned and necessary gathering will turn into a big-deal occasion.

In addition to Erbil, the Holy Father will visit Ur, said to be the birthplace of Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and visit the most sacred city for Shiites, Najaf. If ever there was a trip meant to vent sectarianism, this is it. An Iraqi man expressed the hope that this high-profile reconciliation visit will improve the perception of Christians among other communities in Iraq.

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