On Friday, Pope Francis arrives in Bagdad, fulfilling the 84-year-old's long-held desire to visit the country that's home to many Eastern Rite churches, Catholic and Orthodox.
This marks the first papal trip to Iraq, with stops scheduled in Baghdad, Najaf, Nasiriyah, Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh as he takes in several cities that were once home to large Christian communities, now depleted after years of violence and extremism following the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The late Pope John Paul was unable to visit in 2000 after negotiations with the former dictator’s government broke down.
Beginning with a welcome ceremony followed by a courtesy visit to President Barham Salih, Pope Francis' three-day itinerary will include a meeting with Shiite spiritual cleric Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Al Sistani, where the two religious leaders are expected to sign the document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.
During his trip to the UAE in February 2019 – the first visit by a pontiff to the Arabian peninsula – he signed an inter-religious text condemning extremism and promoting tolerance and peaceful coexistence in 2019 with the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb.
The 48-hour visit to the UAE, which is home to nearly 1 million Catholics, saw him deliver a historic mass in Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City that drew an estimated 135,000 people and praised the UAE as “a land that is trying to be a model of coexistence, of human brotherhood, and a meeting place among diverse civilisations and cultures.”
A month later, he was back in the region for a two-day trip to Morocco focusing on inter-faith relations and issued a joint call with the country’s King Mohammed VI for the preservation of Jerusalem’s multi-religious character. The appeal said the city’s sacred sites must be accessible to worshippers of all faiths and expressed their deep concern “for its spiritual significance and its special vocation as a city of peace.”
Late last year, he appointed Pierbattista Pizzaballa as Jerusalem’s Latin patriarch. The Franciscan friar chose Jordan – which has a 2 per cent Christian population and acts as custodian of holy places in East Jerusalem – for his first visit to the region in his new role.
During his stay in the capital Amman, he described the “catastrophic” situations unfolding in nearby countries, citing the civil war in Syria, financial meltdown in Lebanon and the failed uprising in Iraq.
Pope Francis visited Jordan in 2014, beginning a three-day trip to the Middle East by hosting mass in the Hashemite Kingdom before travelling on to Israel and the West Bank.
During his Christmas message at the end of last year, he singled out Lebanon and South Sudan as two countries facing difficulties that he intends to visit this year. “I am deeply troubled to see the suffering and anguish that has sapped the native resilience and resourcefulness of the Land of the Cedars,” he said, expressing his “affection for the beloved people of Lebanon, whom I hope to visit as soon as possible.”
He also called for peace and reconciliation in many of the region’s conflicts, including Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq.