Pope Francis in Iraq: everything you need to know about pontiff's visit

From when he arrives to whom he will meet and if it is safe to be there – here's all your questions about the Pope's visit to Iraq answered

Pope Francis visits Iraq this week, a country known as the cradle of civilisation and home to many of the Bible's most famous stories – including Noah's Ark.

Here’s everything you need to know about his visit:

When does Pope Francis visit Iraq?

Pope Francis arrives in Iraq on Friday, March 5 at about noon, local time. He will spend his first afternoon attending official meetings and meeting members of Baghdad's Christian community.

He will then tour the country over the next two days, going south to Najaf and Ur before heading north to Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh.

You can see his full itinerary here

 

What has the Pope said about the visit?

The Pope has long planned to visit Iraq and tried to go last year until Covid-19 derailed the idea.

“I think constantly of Iraq – where I want to go next year – in the hope that it can face the future through the peaceful and shared pursuit of the common good on the part of all elements of society, including the religious,” he told an audience in 2019.

He is not the first pontiff to express a desire to visit Iraq. In 2000, Saint John Paul II planned to visit but the trip was called off over security concerns and a failure to negotiate the plan with the then government.

Are there Christians in Iraq?

In short, yes.

There are 14 officially recognised Christian sects including Chaldeans, Syriacs, Assyrians, Armenians, Greek Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox. Many of these have close links to the Roman Catholic Church and see the pontiff as their pope.

Although Iraq is an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, there are between 200,000 and 300,000 Christians in the country today.

But that is down significantly on the 1.5 million thought to have lived in Iraq before the US invasion in 2003 led to civil war and a surge in extremism.

Although they had a degree of protection and freedom of religion under Saddam Hussein —albeit within the confines of a brutal dictatorship — they have faced persecution – most recently at the hands of ISIS which overtook large areas of the country in 2014 – in the years since.

Pope Francis's main reason for making the first-ever papal trip to Iraq is to encourage the country's Christians after years of persecution.

The visit is expected to be a deeply emotional journey, not only for the Christian communities but for Iraq's many religious groups, who have been anticipating the visit for some time.

Is it safe for Pope Francis to visit Iraq?

Pope Francis is known for mingling with crowds and taking a more relaxed approach to security than some might like. Acts like accepting tea from strangers have earned him the nickname of “the people’s Pope”.

Although he travels with an elite security detail, drawn from the Swiss Guards who protect the Vatican, Iraq will nonetheless present a tougher challenge.

The Iraqi military will be on full alert with the elite Golden Division of counterterrorist forces providing a tight security ring and other military forces and federal police creating a wider security cordon.

Roads will be blocked and the public’s movement curtailed to ensure Pope Francis's safety. The country is already in lockdown to stop the spread of Covid-19.

But ISIS, despite struggling to regain ground since their defeat in Mosul in 2017, staged attacks in Baghdad in January.

But crucially, attacks from the terror group are at an all-time low and ISIS has a poor track record of targeting high-profile public figures in Iraq.

Baghdad's international airport also has tougher security than most airports and has a private road that connects to the highly defended centre of government, the International Zone, formerly the Green Zone.

After Baghdad, the Pope will travel further south to the plain of Ur, next to the town of Nasiriyah.

ISIS attacks in Nasiriyah are exceedingly rare, with the last occurring on the edge of town in September 2017.

It is also likely that most of the Pope’s visits will be semi-private, invite-only gatherings. After suffering years of terrorism, the Iraqi security forces have become effective at defending high-profile targets.

Pope Francis’s trip further north, to Mosul and Qaraqosh, where he will visit a semi-ruined church, will be trickier.

ISIS still has a small residual presence in those areas, but attacks are not common.

Read more about the Pope's security arrangements here.

Is it the first papal visit to the Middle East?

Pope Paul VI became the first Pope to leave Italy in more than a century with a visit to the holy land in 1964, arriving in Jordan before travelling on to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. He later travelled more widely to Muslim-majority countries including Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.

John Paul II visited Lebanon in 1997 and also travelled to Sudan, Tunisia, Turkey, Egypt, Syria and the holy land, among other places.

Pope Benedict XVI only visited the holy land and Lebanon during his eight years in office.

In February 2019, Pope Frances travelled to Abu Dhabi for a three-day visit, becoming the first leader of the Catholic faith to visit the Arabian Gulf.

The major outcome of the visit was the Document on Human Fraternity, an interreligious text condemning extremism and promoting tolerance and peaceful coexistence that was co-singed by the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayeb.

A month later Pope Francis was in Morocco for a two-day visit.

He visited Jordan in 2014 and travelled on to Israel and the West Bank.

Read more here

Who will Pope Francis meet during his visit?

The Pope will be greeted at the airport by Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi. The pontiff will also meet President Barham Salih as well as President of the Kurdistan region of Iraq Nechirvan Barzani.

In January, Pope Francis and Mr Salih met at the Vatican where they discussed “preserving the historical presence of Christians in the country”.

Pope Francis will also meet many Christians, religious figures and Church officials while in Iraq, holding services and prayers with the victims of terrorism and seeing how areas once held by ISIS are being rebuilt.

He also plans to meet local civil-society activists and those working to heal the deep divides in Iraq – although it is not clear yet who exactly this includes.

But for many, his most important meeting will be with Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani.

Who is Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani?

For millions of Iraqis, Pope Francis’s meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani will be an electrifying moment.

Mr Al Sistani is one of the most important voices within the Shiite Muslim faith whose word is heeded by millions in Iraq.

The 90-year-old cleric is widely regarded as a voice of moderation, consistently calling for calm as Iraq descended into civil war after 2003, and supporting peaceful protest.

He is venerated by Iraq’s Shiite community but also commands respect among the main Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities.

The meeting with Mr Al Sistani, a deeply private “quietist” cleric who does not make public appearances, comes after the Pope’s meeting with Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayeb in Abu Dhabi in 2019.

Like Mr Al Sistani, Sheikh Ahmed is hugely influential, followed by millions of Sunni Muslims across the Middle East and beyond.

The Pope has been vocal about trying to forge links across the Abrahamic faiths and build religious tolerance through dialogue.

What else will the Pope do in Baghdad?

Before visiting some of Iraq’s ancient, storied sites, the Pope will be passing through Baghdad to meet officials.

After private meetings in the Iraqi capital, he will then visit the Church of Our Lady of Salvation – an impressive building with a tragic history.

It was the target of a deadly terrorist attack in October 2010 that killed 58 worshippers.

The attack was claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq, predecessors of ISIS.

Pope Francis is also expected to meet leading Iraqi Sunni and Christian leaders in Baghdad.

What is Ur and why is it important?

Southern Iraq, where the ancient human settlement of Ur is located, was home to several Biblical figures including Abraham and Noah.

Ur also hosts an impressive Sumerian-era temple, or ziggurat, close to which the Pope will lead an interreligious ceremony at the House of Abraham – the ruins of which were thought to have been a local administrative centre 5,000 years ago.

Abraham – who appears in the Quran, Bible and Torah, is said to have been born in Ur.

"Ur is the highlight of the visit because Abraham represents the sign of unity for all of us who inhabit this land," the patriarch of Iraq's Chaldean Catholic Church, Louis Sako told The National's Mina Al Droubi.

Pope Francis expressed the same sentiment in January when he said the plain of Ur was “linked to the memory of Abraham”.

Read more about his visit to Ur here

What will the Pope do in Mosul?

Pope Francis will fly by helicopter to Mosul on Sunday, March 7 from Erbil in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government.

He will arrive at Church Square in Mosul, where he will “pray for the victims of war”.

This will be an intensely symbolic moment in a city devastated by fighting between Iraqi federal government forces and ISIS, in a community of Muslims, Christians, Kurds and the small Yazidi minority, who suffered terribly.

In Mosul, it is likely that Pope Francis will visit Unesco heritage restoration projects including the 800-year-old Al Tahera Church that is being reconstructed alongside the famous Al Habda “hunchback” minaret of Al Nuri Mosque by Unesco with UAE funding.

From there, he will fly a short distance to Qaraqosh, a tiny Christian community whose impressive Church of the Immaculate Conception is being restored after it was burnt down by ISIS.

After the town was liberated from ISIS control, some of the most haunting images of the conflict involved a candlelit, multi-faith service in the partially ruined structure.

The Pope will then fly back to Erbil for Mass at the Franso Hariri Stadium, joined by thousands of Christians and well-wishers from all over Iraq.

Where can I watch Pope Francis' visit to Iraq live?

You can get all the latest on Pope Francis' visit to Iraq on The National with pictures, video and stories about his visit as it happens.

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