an “act of love” between the pandemic and regional instability

A general view of the Great Immaculate Church, prior to Pope Francis' planned visit to Iraq, in Qaraqosh, Iraq on February 23, 2021.

© Reuters / Thaier al-Sudani
A general view of the Great Immaculate Church, prior to Pope Francis’ planned visit to Iraq, in Qaraqosh, Iraq on February 23, 2021.

Pope Francis will make a historic visit to Iraq between March 5-8, a predominantly Muslim nation where the Christian minority has been persecuted by jihadist groups. The Vatican describes the 84-year-old pontiff’s trip as an “act of love,” but recognizes the risks in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic and the instability affecting the country and the region. However, he assures that he took measures to minimize the risks.

Pope Francis will arrive in Iraq on an unprecedented trip that will try to build bridges between Catholicism and Islam, in a nation where the Catholic Christian community has traditionally been punished and persecuted.

Argentine Jorge Bergoglio becomes the first highest representative of the Catholic Church to visit this country, a desire that the late John Paul II also had, but which was cut short by security problems in the region.

The Vatican has defined this visit as “an act of love” but also as “something extreme”, since it occurs in the midst of a pandemic and new episodes of violence in the region.

However, the religious institution points out that it is time to comfort Catholics, who are one of the targets of violence by terrorist groups in the region, such as the self-styled Islamic State (IS)

This trip was prepared for 2020, but it had to be postponed precisely due to the health emergency.

Iraq, an overwhelmingly Muslim country, is home to several ancient Christian communities, now numbering between 200,000 and 300,000 people out of the 1.5 million who lived in this territory before the US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The religious leader will fulfill his historical journey before the gaze and concern of those who assure that it is a “dangerous” journey, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI described it. “I think it is a very important trip (…) Unfortunately, it takes place at a very difficult time that also makes it a dangerous trip, for security reasons and due to Covid-19. And then there is the unstable Iraqi situation. I will accompany Francisco in prayer, “he told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

Vatican measures

Both the 84-year-old Pope and the team that will accompany him are vaccinated against the new coronavirus and will travel with measures to minimize the risks for those attending the meetings, such as the drastic decrease in capacity at the selected sites.

The first Latin American Pope in history will travel in a closed and armored vehicle, to guarantee his safety and at the same time avoid crowds in his wake. His acts are only allowed a maximum of 100 people.

There is only one exception to this measure, the mass in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, in which 10,000 people are expected to attend. The place of the event has a capacity of 30,000 individuals, which will guarantee social distancing, according to the Vatican.

The route of Pope Francis

On the marathon three-day visit, Pope Francis will make his first stop in the capital Baghdad. There he will deliver a speech from the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, precisely the place where Al Qaeda jihadists carried out a massive kidnapping and murdered at least 53 people, including parishioners, priests and members of the security forces.

Later it is planned to go to Najaf, 150 kilometers south of Baghdad. It is one of the most significant sites for Muslims in this country, since there is the tomb of the magnet Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and founding figure of Shiite Islam.

In one of what is expected to be the highlights of his trip to Iraqi soil, Bergoglio will arrive in Ur, where a joint prayer with Muslims, Yazidis and Sabeans is scheduled, in a gesture of union beyond religion.

Likewise, the pontiff will step on Mosul and Qaraqosh, two cities that were devastated by the Islamic State group, which dominated there until 2017. Although the jihadists of already expelled from the area, Qaraqosh it is still under siege by various armed groups.

On Sunday he will conclude his tour in Erbil, in the north of the country, where he will offer an open-air ceremony. It is a Kurdish, Muslim fiefdom that opened its doors to hundreds of thousands of Christians, Yazidis and Muslims who fled from IS terrorists.

Although risky, this will undoubtedly be a milestone for the Catholic Church in a predominantly Muslim country.

With Reuters, EFE and local media

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