Christians in Baghdad hope papal visit will turn new page

Pope Francis on first trip to Iraq brings message of peace and reconciliation

Day one of historic papal visit to Iraq

Day one of historic papal visit to Iraq
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Shrugging off calls to practice social distancing amid a new surge in Covid-19 cases, young and old Christians packed the airport road on Friday to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis.

The leader of the Roman Catholic Church has arrived on the first papal visit to war-torn Iraq, bringing a message of peace and reconciliation to a nation devastated by decades of war and internal fighting.

His first encounter with the public was on Baghdad International Airport road when his black BMW, surrounded by police motorcycles and escorted by heavily armed security forces, drove slowly by as thousands of Christians and Muslims watched.

From his car, he greeted crowds waving Iraqi and Vatican flags along the side of the highway. Women ululated while the national anthem played from loudspeakers.

"Only today, I felt that I’m Christian,” said Noor Sabah, a 25-year-old lawyer who was wearing a white cap with the Pope's picture, minutes after waving to the pontiff from behind the metal fence.

“He should have done this a long time ago,” said Ms Sabah, who came with her mother and sister.

“Christians have suffered all these years. Let’s hope that this visit will bring something good,” she added.

When Saddam Hussein was in power, Christians lived in peace with the country’s Muslim majority and enjoyed protection from both the government and society.

But with the rise of extremism after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled the long-time dictator, targeted killings and kidnappings for ransom began against the community, forcing many to flee the country.

The houses and businesses of those who fled have since been taken over illegally, mainly by gangs who have forged property documents.

Community leaders estimate the number of Christians in Iraq has dropped to fewer than 250,000 from the roughly 1.5 million that lived in the country before 2003.

"Today is a day for peace, tranquillity and joy in Dar Al Salam [Baghdad]," said Amal Mato Francis, a 60-year-old history teacher, who along with her sister and two nieces joined hundreds gathered at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Baghdad’s Karada before heading out to greet Pope Francis.

"I hope that peace and prosperity will prevail in Iraq and all religions come together," Ms Francis added, accompanying.

"We need forgiveness and unity," she added.

By visiting Iraq during these hard times, the Pope “wants to defy terrorism and to show solidarity with all Iraqis and not to let them down,” said Sadd Anawar Butris, 39.

For Lina Fuad Alber, 35, the visit “comes at a perfect time in which Christians and all Iraqis need such a gesture of support and solidarity".

“I can’t express my feelings, I can’t describe my happiness,” Ms Alber added as she waited to board the bus with her two daughters, aged 23 and 19.

Dozens of Christian families waited outside Our Lady of Salvation Church, the scene of an Al Qaeda attack in 2010 that killed dozens of worshippers and security forces.  Authorities blocked roads near the church, preventing people from getting close to the church.

Pope Francis overwhelmed by musical reception in Iraq

Pope Francis overwhelmed by musical reception in Iraq

To practice social distancing inside the church, a large screen was put in the yard for those who want to follow the Pope. But some families could not cross the street to see the church.

“We are disappointed that we couldn’t see the Pope today as security forces prevented us from approaching,” said Amer Mudhar, 56, who came with his wife.

“This visit gives us hope to stay in the country, to hold on to our roots, to love each other and unify all in Iraq,” Mr Mudhar added.

One of the Pope's significant stops will be when the 84-year-old pontiff will travel on Saturday to the southern city of Najaf to meet 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani.

Later, he will attend an interfaith meeting at the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham.

He will visit the north of the country on Sunday, celebrating mass in Erbil and saying prayers in Mosul, before departing on March 8.