ROME – With less than three weeks to go until Pope Francis’ first international trip in 18 months, rockets were fired Monday at the airport and civilian areas of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and a city he’s scheduled to visit during his March 5-8 outing to Iraq.
The attacks represent the latest challenge to what was already an outing fraught with complexities.
On Monday, a rocket attack on the airport in Erbil killed a U.S. military contractor and wounded six others, including a U.S. service member. Footage by local news outlet Rudaw shared on Twitter shows that at least two rockets fell on a nearby residential area.
CCTV footage from the moment one of several rockets landed in Erbil pic.twitter.com/Zg3YW9ZCbE
— Rudaw English (@RudawEnglish) February 15, 2021
Responsibility for Monday’s attack was claimed by an Iraqi armed group called Guardian of Blood Brigades.
“The targeting of Erbil that claimed victims represents a dangerous escalation and a criminal terrorist act against national efforts to protect the security of the country and the safety of its citizens,” tweeted Iraqi President Barham Salih. “We have no choice but to firmly strengthen our efforts to root out the forces of terror and their attempts to plunge the country into chaos.”
Despite ISIS being defeated by a coalition of Iraqi and international forces in 2018, there have been a continuous series of attacks against international targets in central and southern Iraq by rogue armed groups.
Fewer attacks have taken place in recent weeks, and according to Rudaw, even less so in the Kurdistan region, with the last attack on Erbil happening in late September, when the airport was again the target. Both times the attacks were perpetrated by attaching a missile launching pad to a KIA car, that was then left abandoned by a sideroad.
An Iraqi armed group “Guardian of Blood Brigades” claimed responsibility for the rocket attack outside the international airport in Erbil. According to the group, 24 rockets were fired at the airport.
Francis is scheduled to land in this airport March 7, with a packed day to following, including a meeting with local religious and civil authorities, a visit to Mosul and Qaraqosh in the Nineveh Plains, where he will say a prayer for the victims of war and meet with the local Christian community in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, and then head back to Erbil to say Mass in the Franso Hariri Stadium for some 10,000 people before flying back to Baghdad.
Despite the rockets attack, preparations are underway for the pontiff’s arrival in the capital of this autonomous region: “It will be a huge event for which we are preparing as best as we can,” said the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda.
The Mass will be celebrated under the Latin rite, and will include sections in various languages, including Arabic, Kurdish, English and Aramaic, the language of Jesus which is still used by Iraqi Christians during the liturgy.
Warda also said that as a sign of dialogue and coexistence, close to 20 percent of the 120-people choir will be Muslims. Though the stadium has a capacity for 30,000 people, only a third of that number will be allowed to attend due to COVID-19 restrictions, and he also noted that there will be 200 volunteers helping people find their places. Each guest will have an identification badge and an established seating place to help easily track down people in the case of infection with the new coronavirus.
To try to reach as many of the tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians living in diaspora throughout the world, the Mass will be broadcast live through social media.
The new attack came two days after the Iraqi government announced stringent COVID-19 precautions, including the closure of mosques and churches “until further notice.” On Monday, the same day of the attacks, the Iraqi prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, met with the papal representative in the country, Archbishop Mitja Leskovar, to discuss “the preparation for the scheduled visit of His Holiness.”
As expected for any papal trip- that is also a State visit, since Francis is the head of the world’s smallest state, there are events planned in churches during each day of the visit, including a meeting with religious in the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Deliverance in Baghdad, where 48 people were martyred during Mass Oct. 31, 2010.
Though not in the schedule, many local Catholics hope the pontiff will go down to the crypt in the cathedral, where the remains of the priests martyred that day are kept. However, there’s a flight of stairs, and seeing that the pope has recently canceled a series of events due to a flare up of his sciatica, there will be “no pressure” for him to go down, as a source with knowledge of the situation said.
There’s also a possibility that, considering the sensitivity of the visit, Pope Francis might restrain from referring to the men and women killed that day as martyrs, much as he avoided the term “Rohingya,” during his visit to Myanmar in 2017.
The restrictions announced by the government to try to curve the COVID-19 pandemic, that has a new strain found in Iraq on Monday, includes a “total curfew” Friday-Sunday and an 8 p.m.-5 a.m. curfew the rest of the week Feb. 18-March 8. Grocery stores, bakeries and pharmacies are exempt.
Seeing that the pope arrives in a Friday and leaves by early morning Monday, the entire program of the trip is scheduled during the “total curfew” days.
Iraq has been experiencing a daily increase of new coronavirus infections since Feb. 1, with over 670,000 cases since the pandemic began last March. At least 13,185 people died of the virus before Feb. 16.
Speaking with SIR, the news agency of the Italian bishops conference, Cardinal Louis Sako, Chaldean patriarch, said that the new lockdown restrictions “do not represent an obstacle to the imminent visit of Pope Francis.”
He noted that those who have been chosen to represent the faithful in the various papal events have been registered and will be allowed to move during those days to go back and forth from the Masses and prayers scheduled.
“There shouldn’t be any problems,” Sako said. “We have complied with all the anti Covid-19 restrictions decided by the Government.”
“The coming of Pope Francis to Iraq is highly anticipated,” he added. “In recent days, I met with the country’s top authorities, the Iraqi president, the premier, to talk about this trip. They are all happy because they know how important this event is for the good of Iraq and its people.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma