Catholics in Iraq are not giving up on a papal visit despite Pope Francis recently saying the pandemic might stop him from going: At the request of Cardinal Patriarch Raphael Sako, they’re reciting a prayer specifically for the trip scheduled for March 5-8 to take place.
“Lord our God, grant Pope Francis health and safety to carry out successfully this eagerly awaited visit,” says the prayer, being said at the end of every Mass throughout Iraq.
The prayer also mentions the pontiff’s efforts for dialogue, enhance fraternal reconciliation, building confidence and consolidating peace and human dignity, “especially for us Iraqis who have been through painful ‘events’ that affected our lives.”
The prayer also entrusts Francis’s visit to the Virgin Mary, and asks for “the grace of living in a complete national communion,” and cooperating fraternally in building “a better future for our country and our citizens.”
During an interview with an Italian journalist that aired on Sunday, Pope Francis cast doubt over the trip, announced last December, arguing that the COVID-19 pandemic had changed many aspects of life, including traveling.
“Yes, I had to cancel trips … because in good conscience, I can’t be the cause of gatherings of people, right? Now I don’t know if the trip to Iraq can take place. Life has changed,” he said.
In 2020 the only officially announced had been a day-trip to Malta scheduled for May 31, but it was cancelled due to the pandemic.
Last month the Holy See Press Office announced that the pope had accepted the invitation of Iraqi President Barham Salih and the country’s Catholic Church. If the trip goes forward, Francis will be the first pope to set foot in this country.
Salih tweeted about the visit, saying that it will “be a message of peace to Iraqis of all religions and serve to affirm our common values of justice and dignity.”
Sako also welcomed the news of the visit expressing “joy and satisfaction” at the announcement which confirmed the importance of “the Christian presence” in Iraq. There are an estimated 150,000 Christians left in the nation of the two rivers.
Francis is expected to visit both Ur, the homeland of the patriarch Abraham, and several towns in the Nineveh plain, but the full schedule is yet to be announced.
Sources have told Crux the pope and his team are still working on a moment of dialogue with a representative of Shiite Islam.
A source with knowledge of the situation said that there’s remote possibility of the pontiff going to Najaf, widely considered as the third holiest city of Shia Islam, after Mecca and Medina. It is considered the center of political Shiite power in Iraq.
The Holy See is finding it difficult to find a relevant figure of Shiite Islam willing to dialogue with the pope who is also acceptable to the Iraqi government. The source said there’s even a possibility that the person tapped might be from Iran, which could “open a geopolitical can of worms,” although the Vatican and Iran have long had diplomatic relations, with the Holy See having an embassy in Tehran.
Another sticking point is the desire of local Church leaders for the pope to use the visit to declare as martyrs several groups of Catholics murdered in Iraq in the past two decades.
However, despite the causes being ready, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints hasn’t finished the paperwork.
One of the martyrdom causes is for the 48 people killed Oct. 31, 2010 in the Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Deliverance. The attack was perpetrated by five terrorists from Iraq, Syria and Egypt, who killed two priests and 45 lay Catholic faithful, one of whom was pregnant, during an evening Mass.
The list of those killed includes Fathers Thaer Saadulla Abdal, 32, and Waseem Sabih Kas Boutros, 27, who had been ordained in 2006 and 2007 respectively, in the same cathedral where they died.
Similarly, either on his way to Erbil – the capital of Kurdistan where thousands of Christians fleeing ISIS found refuge between 2014 and 2017 – or as he heads to Qarakosh in the Nineveh plains, Francis could stop in Karamlesh, a town where Father Rasheed Aziz Gianni and his three companions were murdered in 2007. The remains the men have been prepared for a hopeful beatification and will be in Qaraqosh by March, in case the pope is able to make the trip.
The source noted that Francis “could wave the final paperwork, or speedy it up, and declare these people martyrs, which would give a much needed boost to Iraq’s Christians, the motive for the trip, beyond … other collateral benefits.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma