Pope Francis is moving forward with the first papal trip to Iraq despite the rise in coronavirus infections, hoping to encourage the declining number of Christians in the country who were violently persecuted during the Islamic State insurgency as they sought to strengthen the ties to the Shiite Muslim world.
Security is a concern for the March 5-8 visit, given the continued presence of rebellious Shiite militias and new rocket attacks. Francis, who enjoys diving into the crowd and spinning around in his popemobile, is expected to travel in an armored car with a sizeable security detail. The Vatican hopes the measures will have the dual effect of protecting the Pope and discouraging the crowds causing contagion.
Francis’ visit is the culmination of two decades of efforts to bring a pope to the birthplace of Abraham, the central prophet of the Christian, Muslim and Jewish religions, after St. John Paul II was prevented from going in 1999.
“We cannot disappoint these people a second time,” Francis said Wednesday, urging prayer for the trip.
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The trip will give Francis, and the world, an up-close look at the devastation caused by the 2014-2017 reign of ISIS, which destroyed hundreds of Christian-owned homes and churches in the north and sent tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians. and other religious minorities fleeing.
The trip will include a private meeting with Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered figure in Iraq and beyond.
WHAT IS THE SITUATION OF THE VIRUS IN IRAQ?
Iraq is experiencing a resurgence of infections, with new cases daily approaching the height of its first wave.
For months, Francis has avoided even small and socially estranged public hearings at the Vatican, raising questions about why he would expose Iraqis to the risk of possible infection. Francis, the Vatican delegation and the media have been vaccinated, but few ordinary Iraqis have received injections.
The Vatican has defended the visit, insisting that it has been designed to limit crowds and that health measures will be enforced. But even then, 10,000 tickets have been prepared for the pope’s final event, an open-air mass at a stadium in Irbil.
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Spokesman Matteo Bruni said the important thing is that Iraqis will be able to see Francis on television and “know that the Pope is there for them, bringing a message that it is possible to have hope even in the most complicated situations.”
He acknowledged that the visit could have consequences, but said the Vatican weighed the risks against the need for Iraqis to feel the Pope’s “act of love.”
HOW WILL CHRISTIANS REACT TO THE POPE’S INTERRELIGIOUS MESSAGE?
Before ISIS took over vast swaths of northern Iraq, the Rev. Karam Shamasha ministered to 1,450 families in his hometown of Telskuf, 20 miles north of Mosul. Today, the families of his 500th Chaldean Catholic parish, evidence of the mass exodus of Christians who fled the extremists and never returned.
Shamasha says Francis will be welcomed by those who stayed, even though his message of interfaith harmony is sometimes difficult for Iraqi Christians to hear. They faced decades of discrimination and envy from the Muslim majority long before ISIS.
“The first who came to rob our houses were our (Muslim) neighbors,” Shamasha told reporters before the trip. Even before ISIS, when a Christian family built a new house, Muslim neighbors would sometimes say “‘Good, good, because you are building us a house’ because they know or believe that in the end, Christians will disappear from this land. houses will be theirs, ”he said.
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Francis is going to Iraq precisely to encourage these Christians to persevere and remain, and to emphasize that they have an important role to play in rebuilding Iraq. Iraqi Christians were believed to number about 1.4 million in 2003. Today there are about 250,000 left.
Upon arriving in Baghdad, Francis will meet priests, seminarians and nuns at the same cathedral where Islamic militants in 2010 massacred 58 people in what was the deadliest assault on Christians since the 2003 US-led invasion.
On Francis’ last full day in Iraq, he will pray in a Mosul square surrounded by four destroyed churches and visit another church in the Christian city of Qaraqosh that has been rebuilt in a sign of hope for the future of Christianity there.
WHY IS FRANCISCO MEETING THE GREAT AYATOLLAH?
One of the highlights of the trip is Francis’ meeting with al-Sistani, the Grand Ayatollah whose 2014 fatwah called on sane men to fight ISIS increased the ranks of the Shiite militias that helped defeat the group.
Francis has spent years trying to forge better relationships with Muslims. He signed a landmark document on human brotherhood in 2019 with a prominent Sunni leader, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the great Imam of Al-Azhar, the seat of Sunni learning in Cairo.
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There are no plans to add the signature of al-Sistani, 91, to the document. But the fact that the meeting is happening is hugely significant, said Gabriel Said Reynolds, professor of Islamic studies and theology at the University of Notre Dame.
“It’s hard not to see that this accompanies his relationship with Ahmed el-Tayeb,” Reynolds said, pointing to al-Sistani’s place as a revered figure of religious, political and intellectual influence in Iraq and beyond.
“I think there would be a lot to talk about,” he said.
WHAT ARE THE SAFETY CONCERNS?
Security concerns were a problem long before the twin suicide bombings claimed by ISIS swept through a Baghdad market on January 21, killing at least 32 people.
They have only risen after a series of recent rocket attacks, including at least 10 on Wednesday, which resumed against the US presence in the country – attacks the US has blamed on Shiite militias.
Those same groups, strengthened after the al-Sistani fatwa, are accused of terrorizing Christians and preventing them from returning home. The Iraqi government and religious officials are concerned that these militias may carry out rocket attacks in Baghdad or elsewhere to show their disgust at al-Sistani’s meeting with Francis.
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When asked if this 33rd visit abroad was Francisco’s riskiest, Bruni responded diplomatically.
“I would not enter a higher risk travel competition, but I would say that this is without a doubt one of the most interesting.”