FAITH

Pope arrives in Iraq to rally Christians despite pandemic

Mar 5, 2021, 5:55 AM
Pope Francis is flanked by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi upon his arrival at Baghdad's in...
Pope Francis is flanked by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi upon his arrival at Baghdad's international airport, Iraq, Friday, March 5, 2021. Pope Francis heads to Iraq on Friday to urge the country's dwindling number of Christians to stay put and help rebuild the country after years of war and persecution, brushing aside the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
(AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

BAGHDAD (AP) — Pope Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday to urge the country’s dwindling number of Christians to stay put and help rebuild the country after years of war and persecution, brushing aside the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns to make his first-ever papal visit.

The pope, who wore a facemask during the flight, kept it on as he descended the stairs to the tarmac and was greeted by two masked children in traditional dress. But health measures appeared lax inside the airport despite the country’s worsening coronavirus outbreak.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said Iraqis were eager to welcome Francis’ “message of peace and tolerance” and described the visit as a historic meeting between the “minaret and the bells.” Among the highlights of the three-day visit is Francis’ private meeting Saturday with the country’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered figure in Iraq and beyond.

Francis’ plane touched down at Baghdad’s airport just before 2 p.m. local time (1100 GMT). A red carpet was rolled out on the tarmac in Baghdad’s international airport with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on hand to greet him. Francis was visibly limping in a sign his sciatica, which has flared and forced him to cancel events recently, was possibly bothering him.

A largely unmasked choir sang songs as both pope and premier made their way to a welcome area in the airport. People wandered around without masks, and the pope and the prime minister took theirs off as they sat down for their first meeting — seated less than two meters (yards) apart — and later stood next to each other shaking hands and chatting.

The pope later rolled down the window and waved to some of the hundreds of people who gathered along the airport road to watch his motorcade pass. The airport road was the scene of regular attacks in the chaotic years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Iraqis were keen to welcome him and the global attention his visit will bring, with billboards depicting Francis with the slogan “We are all Brothers.”

The government is eager to show off the relative security it has achieved after years of wars and militant attacks that nevertheless continue even today. Francis and the Vatican delegation are relying on Iraqi security forces to protect them, including with the expected first use of an armored car for the popemobile-loving pontiff.

Francis is breaking his year-long COVID-19 lockdown to refocus the world’s attention on a largely neglected people whose northern Christian communities, which date from the time of Christ, were largely emptied during the violent Islamic State reign from 2014-2017.

For the pope, who has often traveled to places where Christians are a persecuted minority, Iraq’s beleaguered Christians are the epitome of the “martyred church” that he has admired ever since he was a young Jesuit seeking to be a missionary in Asia.

In Iraq, Francis is seeking to not only honor its martyrs but deliver a message of reconciliation and fraternity. The few Christians who remain in Iraq harbor a lingering mistrust of their Muslim neighbors and face structural discrimination long predating both IS and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that plunged the country into chaos.

“The Pope’s visit is to support the Christians in Iraq to stay, and to say that they are not forgotten,” the Chaldean patriarch, Cardinal Luis Sako, told reporters in Baghdad this week. The aim of Francis’ visit, he said, is to encourage them to “hold onto hope.”

The visit comes as Iraq is seeing a new spike in coronavirus infections, with most new cases traced to the highly contagious variant first identified in Britain. The 84-year-old pope, the Vatican delegation and travelling media have been vaccinated; most Iraqis have not.

The Vatican and Iraqi authorities have downplayed the threat of the virus and insisted that social distancing, crowd control and other health care measures will be enforced. The Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, said this week the important thing is for Iraqis to know that the pope came to Iraq as an “act of love.”

“I come among you as a pilgrim of peace, to repeat ‘you are all brothers,’” Francis said in a video-message to the Iraqi people on the eve of his visit. “I come as a pilgrim of peace in search of fraternity, animated by the desire to pray together and walk together, also with brothers and sisters of other religious traditions.”

Christians once constituted a sizeable minority in Iraq but their numbers began dwindling after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. They fell further when IS militants in 2014 swept through traditionally Christian towns across the Nineveh plains. Their extremist brand of Islam forced residents to flee to the neighboring Kurdish region or further afield.

Few have returned, and those who have found their homes and churches destroyed.

Returnees have had to contend with more struggles. Many cannot find work and blame discriminatory practices in the public sector, Iraq’s largest employer. Since 2003, public jobs have been mostly controlled by majority Shiite political elites, leaving Christians feeling marginalized.

While hard numbers are hard to come by, there were an estimated 1.4 million Christians in Iraq in 2003. Today the number is believed to be around 250,000.

During his visit, Francis will pray in the Baghdad church that was the site of one of the worst massacres of Christians, the 2010 attack by Islamic militants that left 58 people dead. 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 was used as a firing range by IS.

The Vatican and the pope have frequently insisted on the need to preserve Iraq’s ancient Christian communities and create the security, economic and social conditions for those who have left to return. But that hasn’t necessarily translated into reality.

“I am the only priest in Mosul. Every Sunday I hold mass at 9 a.m., and only around 70 people attend,” said the Rev. Raed Adil Kelo, parish priest of the Church of the Annunciation in the onetime de-facto IS capital.

Before 2003, the Christian population was 50,000, he said. It had dwindled to 2,000 before IS overran northern Iraq.

He doesn’t expect more to return, but he said Francis’ visit would have immeasurable importance for those who stayed.

“This visit will bring peace to Iraq” he said.

___

Winfield reported from Vatican City.

Today’s Top Stories

Faith

downtown slc general conference temple square...
Simone Seikaly

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reacts to Roe v. Wade

SALT LAKE CITY — Leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have responded to the Supreme Court decision on Friday that overturned Roe v. Wade. Their statement began by reasserting a belief in the sanctity of human life. It also listed possible exceptions for members who may seek an abortion, which include […]
3 days ago
The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, June 15, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)...
MARK SHERMAN Associated Press

Justices rule religious schools must get Maine tuition aid

The most immediate effect of the court's ruling beyond Maine probably will be felt next door in Vermont, which has a similar program.
6 days ago
Photo credit: Just Add Chocolate Facebook page....
Lindsay Aerts

Chocolate shop apologizes, renames Book of Mormon-themed Twinkies

A Utah County chocolate shop has renamed its Book of Mormon-theme Twinkies after it was accused of being racist. The shop has also apologized.
17 days ago
hill cumorah monument...
Mark Jones and Aimee Cobabe

UPDATE: Suspect arraigned for reckless endangerment after gunshots fired at Hill Cumorah Visitors’ Center

No injuries were reported Wednesday after gunshots were heard near the Hill Cumorah Visitors Center in New York. Police say roughly 22 shots were fired.
19 days ago
Ground Broken for Burley Idaho Temple...
Waverly Golden

Ground broken for Burley Idaho Temple

The new temple will sit on a 10.1-acre land owned by the Funk family. Plans have been in place since April 2021 for the new Temple.
23 days ago
missionary injured in shooting seventy missionaries are safe...
Kate Davis

Church lifting pandemic restrictions on temple attendance

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Friday, those wishing to attend the temple will not need a reservation in the near future.
24 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Tax Harassment...
Jordan Wilcox

The best strategies for dealing with IRS tax harassment | You have options!

Learn how to deal with IRS tax harassment. This guide will teach you how to stop IRS phone calls and letters, and how to handle an IRS audit.
spend a day at Bear Lake...
Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

You’ll love spending the day at Bear Lake | How to spend a day at Bear Lake

Bear Lake is a place that needs to be experienced. Spend a day at Bear Lake.
Curb Appeal...
Price's Guaranteed Doors

How to have the best of both worlds for your house | Home security and curb appeal

Protect your home and improve its curb appeal with the latest security solutions like beautiful garage doors and increased security systems.
Prescription opioids can be disposed of during National Prescription Take Back Day...
Know Your Script

Prescription opioid misuse | How to protect your family from the opioid epidemic

Studies have shown that prescription opioid misuse has increased since COVID-19. So what do you need to know about these opioids?
Follow @ikeyospe...

Tax Tuesday: The Most Common Mistakes People Make When Filing Their Taxes

Fortunately, for most average earners, they will not end up owing overpayments received for the Child Tax Credit in 2021.
Follow @ikeyospe...

Tax Tuesday: How will last year’s child tax credits affect you?

Fortunately, for most average earners, they will not end up owing overpayments received for the Child Tax Credit in 2021.
Pope arrives in Iraq to rally Christians despite pandemic