BAGHDAD (AP) — Pope Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday to induce the nation’s dwindling variety of Christians to remain put and assist rebuild the nation after years of conflict and persecution, brushing apart the coronavirus pandemic and safety considerations to make his first-ever papal go to.
Iraqis have been eager to welcome him and the worldwide consideration his go to will carry, with banners and posters hanging excessive in central Baghdad, and billboards depicting Francis with the slogan “We’re all Brothers” adorning the principle thoroughfare. In central Tahrir sq., a mock tree was erected emblazoned with the Vatican emblem, whereas Iraqi and Vatican flags lined empty streets.
Iraqi Overseas Minister Fuad Hussein stated Iraqis have been desperate to welcome Francis’ “message of peace and tolerance” and described the go to as a historic assembly between the “minaret and the bells.” Among the many highlights of the three-day go to is Francis’ personal assembly Saturday with the nation’s high Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered determine in Iraq and past.
Francis’ aircraft touched down at Baghdad’s airport simply earlier than 2 p.m. native time (1100 GMT).
The federal government is raring to point out off the relative safety it has achieved after years of wars and militant assaults that however proceed even in the present day. Francis and the Vatican delegation are counting on Iraqi safety forces to guard them, together with with the anticipated first use of an armored automobile for the popemobile-loving pontiff.
Tahsin al-Khafaji, spokesman for Iraq’s joint operations, stated safety forces had been elevated.
“This go to is de facto essential to us and supplies perspective of Iraq as a result of the entire world can be watching,” he stated. The excessive stakes will give Iraqi forces “motivation to realize this go to with security and peace.”
Francis is breaking his year-long COVID-19 lockdown to refocus the world’s consideration on a largely uncared for folks whose northern Christian communities, which date from the time of Christ, have been largely emptied through the violent Islamic State reign from 2014-2017.
For the pope, who has typically traveled to locations the place 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 younger Jesuit looking for to be a missionary in Asia.
In Iraq, Francis is looking for to not solely honor its martyrs however ship a message of reconciliation and fraternity. The few Christians who stay in Iraq harbor a lingering distrust of their Muslim neighbors and face structural discrimination lengthy predating each IS and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that plunged the nation into chaos.
“The Pope’s go to is to assist the Christians in Iraq to remain, and to say that they don’t seem to be forgotten,” the Chaldean patriarch, Cardinal Luis Sako, instructed reporters in Baghdad this week. The purpose of Francis’ go to, he stated, is to encourage them to “maintain onto hope.”
The go to comes as Iraq is seeing a brand new spike in coronavirus infections, with most new instances traced to the extremely contagious variant first recognized in Britain. The 84-year-old pope, the Vatican delegation and travelling media have been vaccinated; most Iraqis haven’t.
Forward of the pope’s arrival Friday, dozens of males, ladies and kids gathered in a Baghdad church, many not carrying masks or observing social distancing, earlier than boarding buses to the airport to welcome the pontiff.
The Vatican and Iraqi authorities have downplayed the specter of the virus and insisted that social distancing, crowd management and different well being care measures can be enforced. The Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, stated this week the essential factor is for Iraqis to know that the pope got here to Iraq as an “act of affection.”
“I come amongst you as a pilgrim of peace, to repeat ‘you might be all brothers,’” Francis stated in a video-message to the Iraqi folks on the eve of his go to. “I come as a pilgrim of peace in quest of fraternity, animated by the need to wish collectively and stroll collectively, additionally with brothers and sisters of different non secular traditions.”
Christians as soon as constituted a sizeable minority in Iraq however their numbers started dwindling after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. They fell additional when IS militants in 2014 swept by means of historically Christian cities throughout the Nineveh plains. Their extremist model of Islam compelled residents to flee to the neighboring Kurdish area or additional afield.
Few have returned, and those that have discovered their properties and church buildings destroyed.
Returnees have needed to cope with extra struggles. Many can’t discover work and blame discriminatory practices within the public sector, Iraq’s largest employer. Since 2003, public jobs have been principally managed by majority Shiite political elites, leaving Christians feeling marginalized.
Whereas onerous numbers are onerous to come back by, there have been an estimated 1.four million Christians in Iraq in 2003. Right this moment the quantity is believed to be round 250,000.
Throughout his go to, Francis will pray within the Baghdad church that was the positioning of one of many worst massacres of Christians, the 2010 assault by Islamic militants that left 58 folks lifeless. He’ll honor the lifeless in a Mosul sq. surrounded by shells of destroyed church buildings and meet with the small Christian group that returned to Qaraqosh. He’ll bless their church, which was used as a firing vary by IS.
The Vatican and the pope have steadily insisted on the necessity to protect Iraq’s historical Christian communities and create the safety, financial and social circumstances for individuals who have left to return. However that hasn’t essentially translated into actuality.
“I’m the one priest in Mosul. Each Sunday I maintain mass at 9 a.m., and solely round 70 folks attend,” stated the Rev. Raed Adil Kelo, parish priest of the Church of the Annunciation within the onetime de-facto IS capital.
Earlier than 2003, the Christian inhabitants was 50,000, he stated. It had dwindled to 2,000 earlier than IS overran northern Iraq.
He doesn’t anticipate extra to return, however he stated Francis’ go to would have immeasurable significance for individuals who stayed.
“This go to will carry peace to Iraq” he stated.