Vatican delegation in Iraq before pope's visit next month

Pope Francis will visit Iraq for three days from March 5 to meet Christians and religious leaders from all faiths

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis embraces new cardinal Louis Raphael I Sako of Iraq during a consistory ceremony to install 14 new cardinals in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, June 28 2018. REUTERS/Tony Gentile/File Photo/File Photo
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A Vatican delegation arrived in Iraq on Thursday to prepare for the first papal visit to the war-ravaged country next month.

In early December, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis would visit Iraq from March 5-8. The visit will include stops in the capital Baghdad, Najaf, Nasiriyah, Erbil, Mosul and the Christian-dominated city of Qaraqosh.

The delegation landed in the southern city of Najaf, where the pope is scheduled to meet Shiite spiritual cleric Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Al Sistani. The delegation held a meeting at Mr Al Sistani’s office and visited the nearby shine of Imam Ali, the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law.

FILE - In this Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020 photo, a poster of Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, right, and Arabic that reads, "the love of the country bonds us together," is seen in Najaf, Iraq. Iraq’s top Catholic official said Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021 that a deadly suicide bombing in Baghdad hasn’t thwarted Pope Francis’ plans to visit, and he confirmed the pontiff would meet with the country’s top Shiite cleric, Ali al-Sistani, in a significant highlight of the first-ever papal trip to Iraq. The Chaldean patriarch, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, provided the first details of Francis’ March 5-8 itinerary during a virtual press conference hosted by the French bishops' conference. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)
A poster of Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani that reads "the love of the country bonds us together," is seen in Najaf, Iraq. AP

According to the official Vatican itinerary, the pope will meet Iraqi President Barham Salih, as well as civil authorities, diplomats and Christian religious leaders during his visit.

In Najaf, the two religious leaders are expected to sign the document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, according to the patriarch of Iraq's Chaldean Catholic Church, Louis Sako.

During a visit to Abu Dhabi in 2019, the pope signed the inter-religious text condemning extremism and promoting tolerance and peaceful coexistence in 2019 with the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb.

Once in Nasiriyah, the pope is supposed to visit the ancient Iraqi city of Ur, believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, the father of all three of the great monotheistic religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, for an interreligious meeting.

During the last day, he will meet Christians in the Kurdish region, Mosul and Qaraqosh.

The 84-year-old pontiff has long expressed a desire to visit Iraq, the traditional home to many different Eastern Rite churches, Catholic and Orthodox.

The late Pope John Paul II wanted to visit Iraq in 2000, but was unable to go after negotiations with the government of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein broke down.

As a Papal visit approaches, Iraqi Christians still worry for their safety

As a Papal visit approaches, Iraqi Christians still worry for their safety

For decades, Iraq was home to a vibrant Christian community, where different faiths lived in peace among the country’s Muslim majority and enjoyed government protection.

But their number started to dwindle after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and unleased extremism and violence in the country.