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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 4 March 2021

Pope Francis plans ambitious tour of Iraq next month

The pontiff is expected to meet country’s top Shiite Muslim cleric, Ali Al Sistani, as well as important Sunni and Christian figures

Pope Francis embraces new cardinal Louis Raphael I Sako of Iraq during a consistory ceremony to instal 14 new cardinals in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, June 28 2018. Reuters
Pope Francis embraces new cardinal Louis Raphael I Sako of Iraq during a consistory ceremony to instal 14 new cardinals in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, June 28 2018. Reuters

Pope Francis said on Monday he intended to visit Iraq in March, even if most Iraqis have to watch him on television to avoid the coronavirus.

The important thing, he said, is “they will see that the pope is there in their country.”

After John Paul II cancelled a visit to Iraq in 2000, Pope Francis said he had every intention of keeping his word because he does not want to disappoint the Iraqi people a second time.

Only a serious surge in infections would put the trip in question, he said.

“I am the pastor of people who are suffering,” Pope Francis told Catholic News Service during an audience to mark the 100th anniversary of the news agency of the US bishops conference.

Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Iraq on March 5 to 8 in what would be the first papal trip to the country.

The Vatican confirmed he intends to go, but no itinerary has been released and the trip will depend on the health situation in Iraq.

Virus case numbers there have steadily been dropping since a late summer peak and are averaging about 800 new cases a day. At least 13,000 people have died among more than 618,000 confirmed cases across Iraq since February.

The Vatican delegation will be vaccinated in time for the trip, but the main concern for organisers is to keep Iraqis safe, given crowds always form when the pope is out in public.

The trip is aimed primarily at encouraging the country’s beleaguered Christians, who faced decades of discrimination by Iraq’s Muslim majority before being targeted by ISIS extremists in 2014.

Francis is expected to visit Christian communities in the north that were almost destroyed by fighting.

“The pope feels the need to go and give encouragement to these Christians, and invite them to continue giving their witness in an environment that is not at all easy,” Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin told French Catholic broadcaster KTO at the weekend.

Last week, Iraq’s most senior Catholic cleric, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, said Francis would also meet the country’s leading Shiite Muslim cleric, Ali Al Sistani, in a significant highlight of the trip.

The pope is also scheduled to preside over an interfaith meeting at Ur, the birthplace of Abraham.

When Pope Francis met Iraq's President Barham Salih - in pictures

Updated: February 2, 2021 02:03 PM

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