BAGDAD – Pope Francis came to Iraq on Friday to urge the country’s dwindling numbers of Christians to stick with the country’s rebuilding after years of war and persecution, setting aside the pandemic and coronavirus security concerns for his first papal To make a visit.
The Pope, who wore a face mask during the flight, stopped it as he descended the stairs to the tarmac and was greeted by two masked children in traditional clothing. Despite the worsening coronavirus outbreak in the country, health measures at the airport appeared lax.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said Iraqis are eager to welcome Francis’ “message of peace and tolerance” and described the visit as a historic meeting between the “minaret and the bells”. One of the highlights of the three-day visit is Francis’ private meeting on Saturday with the country’s best Shiite minister, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered figure in Iraq and beyond.
Francis’ plane landed at Baghdad airport just before 2 p.m. Local time (6 a.m. ET). A red carpet was rolled out on the tarmac at Baghdad International Airport and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi greeted him. Francis was visibly hobbling in a shield that may have bothered him when his sciatica flared up, forcing him to cancel events.
A largely exposed choir sang songs as both the Pope and Prime Minister made their way to a welcoming area at the airport. People went around without masks, and the Pope and Prime Minister took theirs off when they sat down for their first meeting – less than six feet apart – and later stood side by side, shaking hands and chatting.
Hundreds of people had gathered along the airport road in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Pope’s plane.
The Iraqis wanted to welcome him and the worldwide attention his visit will bring with banners and posters hanging high in the center of Baghdad and billboards depicting Francis with the slogan “We are all brothers”, decorates the main street. A mock tree with the Vatican emblem was erected in central Tahrir Square, while Iraqi and Vatican flags lined empty streets.
The government seeks to demonstrate the relative security it has achieved after years of wars and militant attacks that nonetheless continue to this day. Francis and the Vatican delegation rely on Iraqi security forces to protect them, even with the expected first deployment of an armored car for the Pope who loves Popemobile.
Tahsin al-Khafaji, spokesman for Iraq’s joint operations, said security forces had been reinforced.
“This visit is really important to us and offers a good perspective on Iraq because the whole world will be watching,” he said. The high stakes will “motivate the Iraqi armed forces to make this visit with security and peace”.
Francis is breaking his year-long lockdown on Covid-19 to bring the world’s attention back to a largely neglected people whose northern Christian communities, dating from the time of Christ, have been largely emptied during the violence Rule ISIS from 2014-2017.
For the Pope, who has often traveled to places where Christians are a persecuted minority, the beleaguered Christians in Iraq are the epitome of the “Church of Martyrs” that he admired since his youth as a young Jesuit in order to become missionaries in Asia.
In Iraq, Francis wants not only to honor his martyrs, but also to deliver a message of reconciliation and brotherhood. The few Christians who remain in Iraq have persistent distrust of their Muslim neighbors and face structural discrimination that predated ISIS and the 2003 US-led invasion that wrecked the country.
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“The Pope’s visit is intended to help Christians in Iraq stay and say they will not be forgotten,” the Chaldean Patriarch, Cardinal Luis Sako, told reporters in Baghdad this week. The aim of Francis’ visit is to encourage them to “hold on to hope”.
Christians were once a sizable minority in Iraq, but their numbers began to decline after the US-led invasion of 2003. They continued to fall when IS fighters swept through traditional Christian cities across the plains of Nineveh in 2014. Their extremist Islam forced the residents to flee to the neighboring Kurdish region or beyond.
Few have returned, and those who found their homes and churches have been destroyed.
Returnees had to contend with further fighting. Many cannot find work in the public sector, Iraq’s largest employer, and accuse them of discriminatory practices. Since 2003, public jobs have been largely controlled by the predominantly Shiite political elite, so that Christians feel marginalized.
While hard numbers are difficult to come by, Iraq had an estimated 1.4 million Christians in 2003. Today a number of around 250,000 is assumed.
During his visit, Francis will pray in the Church of Baghdad, where one of the worst massacres of Christians took place, the 2010 attack by Islamic militants that killed 58 people. He will honor the dead in a Mosul square surrounded by shells of destroyed churches and meet with the small Christian community that returned to Qaraqosh. He will bless their church, which ISIS used as a shooting range.