02/15/2021 Iraq (International Christian Concern) – The Vatican is confident that a papal visit to Iraq next month will happen and has released the itinerary for a three-day visit, which is set to begin on March 5 when the Pope touches down in Baghdad. It has been almost two years since an invitation to visit the country was delivered to the Pope in hopes that such a visit would help heal the wounds in Iraqi society after years of bloodshed, and last December, the Pope announced his intention to accept the Iraqi invitation.
Work continues on plans for the visit even as serious doubts as to the safety of Pope Francis have been repeatedly expressed, with recent attacks in Baghdad at the hands of a resurgent Islamic State group undermining confidence in Iraqi ability to maintain security within the capital. Complications from the ongoing COVID pandemic are also a serious concern within Iraq, but despite these threats, the Pope is still very interested in the trip regardless of the potential dangers.
The visit would be quite noteworthy as the first time a pope has visited Iraq. Pope Francis will be meeting with both key Christian and Shia leaders within the country in order to address some of the problems these groups face. The Pope is slated to have an initial meeting with Iraqi President Barham Salih, after which he will be introduced to a gathering of bishops, priests, and other clergy at the Syrian Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad. The next day, March 6, he is expected to travel south to Najaf where he will meet the country’s Shia spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, before flying to Nassiriya, in southeastern Iraq, for an interreligious meeting on the Plain of Ur before returning to Baghdad. Pope Francis will then conclude his trip in northern Iraq with stops in Mosul and Qaraqosh to pray for the victims of war and to celebrate mass, and Erbil in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan, where he will celebrate mass before returning to Rome on March 8.
The meeting with Ayatollah Sistani is slated to be one of the highlights of the visit as the Pope is expected to thank the Shia leader for the efforts that he and his community have been making to help Christians who were robbed of their property during the many years of unrest that have plagued Iraq. According to a spokesman for another Shia cleric leading the effort, 38 homes have been returned to their owners as part of a campaign to re-establish justice and put an end to the infringements of the property rights of Christians in the region.
The real purpose of the papal visit though, is to provide a much-needed boost in morale. The Iraqi government has called the planned visit “an historic event, symbolizing a message of peace to Iraq and the whole region,” and the Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church heralded the visit as a sign of rebirth for Iraq.
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