Despite the recent rocket and bomb attacks and the significant increase in coronavirus cases in Iraq, Pope Francis began a four-day visit to the country on Friday (5) – his first international trip since the start of the pandemic and the first time a Catholic Church leader has visited the predominantly Muslim nation.
“I’m happy to travel again,” said the pontiff, who turned 84 in December and has already been vaccinated against the coronavirus, along with everyone around him, on the plane.
He had justified the cancellation of his previous trips on the grounds that his conscience would not allow him to provoke settlements, but speaking of going to Iraq, he said he felt obliged to maintain the plans for this “visit. iconic”.
“It is a duty to a land martyred for many years.”
The two predecessors of the Argentine Pope, Benedict 16 and John Paul II, tried to organize visits to Iraq, but the trips never took place, due to the conflicts in the country and the difficulties of negotiating with the government local.
“I ask you to accompany this apostolic journey in prayer, so that it unfolds in the best possible way and bears the expected fruits. The Iraqi people are waiting for us ”, declared the pontiff last Wednesday (3).
According to data from Johns Hopkins University, Iraq is currently going through one of its worst times of the pandemic. On January 4, the moving average of new infections was 834.4 per day. Two months later on Thursday (4), the recorded number was 4,233.1 – equivalent to an increase of more than 407% in confirmed cases of the disease.
The main concern is the risk that the visit will expose the Iraqi population, who have not yet had access to vaccines.
Asked whether the trip at the time was appropriate, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni downplayed the increase in infections in Iraq.
He also pointed out that the Iraqi population is relatively young – which would make them less vulnerable to severe Covid-19 cases – and cited some of the measures taken to ensure the safety of the Pope and those who wish to see him during the visit. . , like the rules of distance in environments where Francis is present and the fact that, contrary to tradition, the Pope will not parade in open cars.
Despite the restrictions imposed so that no crowds formed, hundreds of people gathered in small groups to try and see the Pope on his first trip to the country.
A procession with dozens of vehicles accompanied Francisco as he left Baghdad International Airport. The pontiff, who usually insists on using simple small cars on his travels, was driven to the presidential palace in the Iraqi capital in a bulletproof BMW and escorted by other armored vehicles.
The Iraqi government has deployed thousands of its security forces to ensure that the Pope’s stay runs smoothly. Although Iraq is going through a period of relative peace compared to the conflicts of recent years, Iraq has been the target of recent attacks which have called into question the pontiff’s decision to visit the country.
In January, a suicide bombing attack, claimed by extremist group Islamic State, killed 32 people and injured at least 110 in Baghdad. Ten rockets were launched against an air base housing US forces on Wednesday in yet another episode of violence in the Iraqi capital. Hours later, Pope Francis made a statement reaffirming his intention to visit the country.
This Friday, the pontiff’s first appointment was a meeting with Iraqi President Barham Salih. The official welcome included a red carpet, the presentation of a military band and a flock of pigeons.
Francisco showed difficulty walking, indicating a possible return of the same sciatica that led him to cancel his participation in traditional New Year’s events at the Vatican.
At the presidential palace, he called on the Iraqis to give peacemakers a chance and criticized the interests of factions and outside forces that have destabilized Iraq and the entire region.
“Iraq has suffered the disastrous effects of wars, the scourge of terrorism and sectarian conflicts often based on fundamentalism unable to accept the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups,” Francisco said.
President Salih thanked the visitor for contradicting “the many recommendations to postpone” the trip due to the pandemic and said that the Pope’s insistence on visiting the country “multiplies the value of this visit for the people. Iraqi”.
Although he had already shown signs of fatigue in his first speech, Francisco moved on to the next point on his travel itinerary: a visit to a church in Baghdad where armed Islamic extremists killed nearly 60 people during a attack in 2010.
On the site, the Catholic leader said the victims “have paid the maximum price for their loyalty to the Lord and their church” and that their deaths will be a forever reminder that “violence and bloodshed are incompatible with the teachings religious”.
Francis also acknowledged that the pandemic has exacerbated pastoral challenges, but said limitations cannot be an obstacle to faith. “We know how easy it is to get infected with the virus of discouragement that sometimes seems to spread around us,” the Pope said, adding to the metaphor the assertion that faith is an “effective vaccine”.
This Saturday (6), Francisco has an appointment with the main Shiite Muslim cleric of Iraq, the great Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. At 90, the Islamic ruler is rarely seen in public and is not used to welcoming visitors, but the historic occasion has led him to make exceptions.
The compromise, seen as an attempt to strengthen dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam, will take place in Nadjaf, the holy city of the Shiites – one of the two main branches of Islam, alongside the Sunnis.
Over 95% of Iraqis are Muslims, while only 1% identifies with different currents of Christianity.
From Najaf, the Pope must pass through the city of Nassyria and leave for Ur, where the sacred texts say that the Prophet Abraham was born, considered a patriarch of the three main monotheistic religions of the world – Christianity, Islam and Judaism. .
Sunday (7), Francisco goes to Arbil, capital of Kurdistan, a region partially autonomous from the Iraqi central government. It is not clear whether the restrictions imposed on the containment of the coronavirus during the papal visit will be properly observed, as the Catholic leader is due to hold a mass at a sports stadium that can accommodate thousands of people on his last night in the city. country.
In an interview with the New York Times, Father Karam Qasha, one of those responsible for registering mass attendees in Arbil, said he was not concerned about the risk of contamination. He said he received daily calls from people who wanted to fulfill the dream of meeting the Pope.
According to the priest, however, most of the participants have already been infected with the coronavirus and have recovered, including himself. Qasha also said that the faithful in his parish prayed “all together” and were treated by a miracle. “The virus has almost disappeared from my city,” he said.
Francisco also scheduled appointments in Qaraqosh and Mosul, the latter a former stronghold of the Islamic State, where churches and other buildings still bear the scars of conflicts between different armed groups that have increased after the vacuum caused by the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, who died 2006.
The end of the papal journey is scheduled for Monday morning (8), when Francis is due to return to Rome.