ROME – Pope Francis is set to become the first pontiff to set a foot in Iraq on Friday, when he lands in Baghdad after a four-hour trip from Rome.
Between the threat of terrorism and the global COVID-19 pandemic, many have wondered why not postpone the trip.
“I don’t hide from you the fact that I have concerns for the pope’s visit,” said historian-turned-war blogger Omar Mohammed, who wrote daily dispatches from Mosul while his city was occupied by ISIS. “I am worried that the pro-Iranian militias will use the visit, as well as the pope’s meeting with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as an excuse to justify their crimes in Iraq.”
The man behind Mosul Eye, a blog that he is still running, risked his life on a daily basis to let the world know what was happening, and he says he would do it all again.
“I believe I didn’t risk enough, even when I am still at risk,” he told Crux from an undisclosed European location. “But there are more than 18 million people under the age of 25 in Iraq, and they deserve every sacrifice. Jesus died when he was very young because he believed in sacrificing himself so humanity could survive. I agree with this.”
Mohammed is not a Christian, yet by his own admission, “I love the pope, I watch him every day, and as I speak with you about him, I am about to cry … He’s going to my city, a city that I cannot go back to. And his words are a balm to my heart: Love, by its nature, creative. (cries) That is the message that we want, that our deeply wounded hearts and souls need.”
According to Sangar Kahleel, an Erbil-based Kurd born in Mosul who works as a fixer for international news outlets, it is true that there are many risks ahead of the visit.
“But we as Iraqis really appreciate this historical visit from the pope,” he told Crux. “I think he is coming to plant the seed of peace in this country which really deserves it. We also hope that Christians will find strength and stability after the visit, because the number of Christians living here goes down every month.”
Kahleel said Iraqis have high expectations for the papal trip.
“We hope that with the pope’s visit, peace will be built between all people in Iraq, so we go back to the amazing days when all of us lived together, loving one another and making no differentiations among peoples,” he said.
Alberto Miguel Fernandez, a Cuban-American former diplomat who now serves as the vice president of the Middle East Media Research Institute, said Iraq is a country in a “deeply extreme crisis, in every sense of the word: Politically, economically, socially. But this has been the case for years. I believe it is logical and incredibly good that the Holy Father is going, in this moment. It is a trip that requires a lot of courage and solidarity.”
On the COVID threat, he noted that as recent as in early February, Iraq was welcoming the head of the judicial branch of Iran, who is a cleric, and who held several large religious meetings with “massive attendance.”
Coronavirus is a reality in Iraq, “a great disaster, but I read Arabic and there is great interest, not only from Christians, but also from Muslims, in the pope’s visit. I find it strange that foreigners are complaining about COVID in Iraq when the locals are so excited.”
Much like Mohammed and Kahleel, the diplomat has many reasons to defend the timing for the trip, including the future of Christianity in Iraq.
“The reality is that the Christian community in Iraq is a crisis right now,” Fernandez said. “[The pope’s] presence today in support of this community that is very battered for various reasons, not only the terrorism of the so-called Islamic State, but the militias, these mafias, religious parties linked to Iran that really affect the survival of Christians, is really encouraging.”
“It is, I believe, a very opportune moment for his visit,” he said. “In political terms, it is more urgent and timelier today than it will be in six months or a year from now. Because then the question becomes, can the Christian community survive that long” without the pope’s encouragement?
The problem Christians face in Iraq is linked to two things: The security situation and the economic survival of these communities. Today, they have no security whatsoever: When he goes to Qaraqosh, Francis will visit the largest church in Iraq in a region- the Nineveh Plain – historically linked to Christianity. Yet today, there are pro-Iranian Shiite militias marauding the plain every day.
“What the Islamic State did before is what these militias are doing today,” Fernandez told Crux. “They are death squads, and not only against Christians, but also against Muslims.”
Francis will also visit Ur, which is near Nasiriyah, a city in the south of the country where these militias and security forces are assassinating young Shiite Muslims who have been protesting against the government.
These protests have also been replicated in Baghdad, the country’s capital, and pictures show thousands gathered over the weekend defying a COVID-19 lockdown to demonstrate against government corruption and economic stagnation.
But beyond giving hope to the embattled Christian community, Fernandez said, the pope can also bring hope to the majority of Muslims who support living together with people of other faiths.
“You will find a public very interested in that message that says yes, I am here for the Christians of Iraq, but I express my solidarity with all Iraqis, of all ethnic and religious groups who suffer because they are poor, marginalized, those being oppressed,” he said.
Dominican Father Olivier Poquillon noted “there is some instability and some weaknesses in the system, but the security situation is not worse than it has been in the past.”
In the Middle East, he told Crux, when one wants to honor a person, you don’t invite them over for a visit, like the president of the United States does when he invites someone to the White House: There, you go and visit that person.
“And if a member of your family is suffering, it is a social duty to visit that person,” the Dominican explained. “And by visiting Iraq, a suffering member of the human family, the pope is giving testimony of the mercy of God for humanity.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma