On March 5, Pope Francis will make history once again. He will be the first Catholic Pope to visit Iraq, at a time when the country and its people are in need of hope and external engagement. The Pope has had an affinity with Iraq for some time. He named the Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans a cardinal in 2018. In January 2020, he received the country's President, Barham Salih, in the Vatican – and it was during that meeting that the wheels for this trip started turning. In February, he prayed for the country as he addressed a general audience in St Peter's Square. He spoke to Iraqis directly in his address, saying: "I say to you, citizens of Iraq, I am very close to you. Your country is a battlefield with wars on each side. I pray for you and pray for peace in your country."
"A battlefield with wars on each side" is an apt way of framing the troubles haunting Iraq. In every part of the country that Pope Francis will visit there are scars – scars of war, of loss, of trauma. Today Iraq is a battlefield fighting terrorism, corruption, Covid-19, militias and foreign intervention seeking to weaken the country at every level. Despite these wars, or perhaps in spite of them, the Pope has decided to embark on a four-day journey that will have him crisscross the country and reinforce the historic and natural place of Christians in Iraq and the Arab world.
The apostolic visit brings hope and optimism to regular Iraqis in that it comes as a fightback against terrorism, political dysfunction and the coronavirus pandemic. Despite security fears from terrorist attacks, despite political dysfunction in a country that rarely received senior foreign dignitaries, and despite the very real threat from the virus, the Pope is going to Iraq. It is the story of hope that we all need. The fact that he will hold mass and have in-person meetings, despite Covid-19, is also a sign of hope against the despair brought about by the pandemic. On Monday, 3,864 cases were recorded in Iraq, with 23 deaths in one day. Human connection at such a difficult time, and seeing the Pope around Iraq, will provide a sign of hope for life despite the difficulties.
Unlike most officials who turn up in unannounced trips and remain within the confines of the Green Zone or military bases, the Pope will be visiting four provinces and will meet with a whole host of people. The Vatican released the agenda of the trip weeks in advance, which includes a public mass, in addition to meeting with bishops and priests at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad. That very church was targeted by six suicide bombers in October 2010, in an attack that shook all of Iraq and was intended to end the presence of Christians in the heart of its capital. The presence of Pope Francis at that church is an apt recognition of the 58 worshippers who were killed on that fateful night. It is also a victory for those who fought terrorism and an endorsement for all those who remained in the country despite efforts to expel them from their homeland. More than one million Christians have left Iraq over the past two decades. Hopefully, after this visit, more will be convinced to stay and some may feel the possibility of returning home.
Equally significant in defeating extremism will be the Papal visit to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, in Qaraqosh, where the ancient Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Nineveh were once the centres of global civilisation. It was in Nineveh that ISIS wanted to eliminate the presence of Christians, attacking them and destroying Assyrian artefacts. Once again, the Pope's presence in Mosul will represent a further nail in the coffin for ISIS and for all those who sought to annihilate Mosul's cosmopolitan make-up.
Pope Francis will visit Ur, the birthplace of Prophet Abraham, the patriarch of the Abrahamic religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. In a region where religion continues to hold much sway, bringing a religious focus to what unites people rather than divides them is hugely significant. This visit builds on the historic visit of Pope Francis to the UAE in 2019, the first by a pontiff to the Arabian Peninsula, where he signed the Human Fraternity Document with the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayeb. It is hoped that when Pope Francis goes to Najaf and meets with Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, there will be a similar signing of the document. The visit to Najaf will hold great symbolism, especially as it continues to be the holiest of cities for Shiite Muslims, despite Iranian attempts to move that authority to Qom.
It would be remiss to assume that Pope Francis visiting Iraq is an occasion of importance only to Iraq’s Christians. Undoubtedly it holds a special significance for Catholics, but it is a moment that all Iraqis, except the most bigoted, will laud. The carefully planned stops in Baghdad, Mosul, Nasiriya, Najaf and Erbil reflect the depth of influence this trip holds.
After years of war and instability, Iraq remains largely closed off to the world. Despite having some of the most important historical sites in the region and the world, much of ancient Mesopotamia remains undiscovered. The Pope’s visit will remind the world of Iraq’s riches in history, cultural diversity and potential.
Mina Al-Oraibi is editor-in-chief of The National