ROME – On Monday, the Vatican released a busy itinerary for Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to Iraq, the publication of which coincided with a flare-up of protests throughout the country as demonstrators call for political reform.
Iraq has previously been plagued by violent demonstrations in 2011, 2015, and 2018 which saw protesters take to the streets to demand an overhaul of a national political leadership they believe allowed corruption to thrive, causing a serious economic and social crisis Iraq has yet to recover from after enduring years of war, terrorism, and the failure of authorities to get on top of the problem.
Over the weekend, fresh protests broke out in numerous provinces in both central and southern Iraq, some of which also turned violent, with several protesters wounded.
When demonstrations broke out in the southern city of Nasiriyah Friday, three of the protesters were injured in clashes with riot police.
During the protests, participants blocked a main bridge in the city center before returning to Habboubi Square, a spot where some of the most violent crackdowns on political demonstrations have taken place since protests erupted in October 2019, with protesters calling for access to basic services and an end to corruption.
According to Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index, Iraq currently ranks just 162nd in the world for transparency, finishing ahead of only a handful of nations including Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and Venezuela.
Some progress has been made in recent years, however, a 2019 Chatham House opinion poll found that 82 percent of Iraqis harbor either moderate or serious concerns about corruption at the top tiers of the government, with 83 percent saying they believed corruption was getting worse.
During Friday’s demonstration, protesters also demanded that authorities reveal the fate of an activist named Sajjad al-Iraqi, who was kidnapped by an unknown party in September. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi sent counter-terrorism forces to Nasiriyah after al-Iraqi disappeared, claiming to know his fate, but no information has been released.
On Sunday, additional protests broke out in Iraq’s eastern province of Wasit, where demonstrators shut down government offices and blocked several main roads, demanding the local government be removed.
Demonstrations in Wasit have turned into sit-ins, with protestors saying they will leave only once the local government resigns.
So far, at least 600 people, including protesters and security forces, have been killed in demonstrations in Iraq since they began in 2019, and some 18,000 have been injured, according to Amnesty International.
This political upheaval is something Pope Francis will likely address during what is promising to be a very busy visit to Iraq in March.
Currently set to visit the country from March 5-8, Francis – if the visit is not postponed – will follow a tight itinerary, visiting Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul, the Plain of Ur, and Najaf.
According to the formal papal itinerary published by the Vatican on Monday, the pope will meet with the country’s authorities, including a private conversation with al-Kadhimi, as well as its Catholic bishops, priests, religious, seminarians and catechists.
He is also scheduled to hold a brief meeting with Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani, one of Shi’a Islam’s top authorities, who is expected to add his signature to the Document on Human Fraternity signed by Pope Francis and the Gran Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, during the pope’s visit to Abu Dhabi in 2019.
Pope Francis is also expected to hold an interreligious meeting at the Plain of Ur, a prayer service for victims of war in Mosul, and a meeting with the Christian community living in Qaraqosh, one of the most important Christian villages in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Some doubt has been cast as to whether the visit will actually take place, or whether it might be postponed, due to an increase in coronavirus cases in Iraq, as well as several episodes of recent terrorism and some flare-ups of the pope’s sciatica.
Twin suicide attacks at a crowded market in Baghdad claimed by ISIS last month left dozens dead and several more injured, raising concerns that security might be an issue during the papal visit, not necessarily for the pope himself, but for the Christian community, which could become a target once the pope arrives.
Since last month’s attack in Baghdad, the Iraqi Interior Ministry has said the two people responsible for organizing the bombings have been killed, and over the weekend they issued a statement saying 13 members of ISIS active in Baghdad have been arrested.
In a statement, the ministry said that in collaboration with Iraqi intelligence and federal police, “13 terrorists in different areas of the governorate,” were arrested.
The ministry said those arrested have given full confessions, which have been recorded handed over to the relevant authorities, along with the “original documents,” as the individuals had been operating under aliases.
As of now the Vatican has yet to send any indication that the pope’s trip could be called off, and the publication of the pope’s formal itinerary indicates that unless there is a major crisis or outbreak of the coronavirus over the next few weeks, Francis is determined to go.
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