BAGHDAD, Iraq – On his flight Friday to Baghdad for a March 5-8 historic visit to Iraq, Pope Francis told journalists that this is an “emblematic” trip and that is also a “duty” to visit this “land martyred for so many years.”
His comments came as he greeted the 74 journalists from 13 nations flying with him from Rome to Baghdad, before proceeding to thank each reporter individually, always wearing a facemask and keeping a social distance due to the COVID-19 restrictions.
Both the pope and all those traveling with him on the Alitalia flight AZ4000 were inoculated against the coronavirus ahead of the apostolic visit, the first in 15 months.
Though he didn’t answer questions from reporters — he never does during the inbound flight, though he sometimes makes some comments to journalists individually — he did receive several gifts, most of which were related to the visit, including the documents compiled for the martyrdom cause of the 48 men, women and children murdered Oct. 31, 2010, by five terrorists in the Syro-Catholic cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation.
Francis is expected to visit this cathedral later on Friday, to meet with bishops, priests, religious, seminarians and catechists.
He also received several documents detailing the ISIS atrocities, including the prize they put on human beings, selling them as slaves.
Francis arrived in Iraq, where he will visit six cities in three days, amidst security concerns in a country ravaged by years of war, the constant threat of terrorism and during a global pandemic that forced him to cancel or heavily restrict the attendance to most of his public engagements in the past year.
Iraq’s president, Barham Salih, had invited Francis to visit in July 2019, hoping that a papal visit would help the country heal after decades of conflict, beginning with the U.S. led invasion in 2003, followed by the rise of jihadist extremist, including Islamic State (ISIS), that perpetrated genocide against the country’s minorities, including Christians and Yazidis, between 2014 and 2017.
Today, Iraq is grappling with political, economic and social instability, and throughout the country, anti-government protesters rallied most of the week leading up to the papal visit.
Despite the challenges, local media speaks of a society happy to welcome the pope, even if government-mandated restrictions means the opportunities to see him live, even if just passing by in the Popemobile, are close to zero. During the visit Francis is expected to move in a closed vehicle, probably armored, with the exception of when he is inside a 30,000-seat stadium where he will say Mass for 10,000 local faithful.
However, the pontiff decided to go ahead with the visit because he believed the Iraqis wills still appreciate him being there, even if they can only see he’s visiting historic places such as the plain of Ur, birthplace of Abraham, through their TVs.
The pontiff has a busy schedule ahead: on Friday he’s meeting civil authorities at the presidential and the local religious community in the Syro-Catholic cathedral where 48 Catholics were martyred during Mass in 2010.
On Saturday he’s going to Najaf, a holy city for Shiite Islam, where he will meet Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Later that morning, he will lead an interreligious prayer in the ruins of the City of Ur, considered the birthplace of Abraham, father of believers. Lastly, on Saturday, he will become the first pope to celebrate Mass in the Chaldean Catholic rite.
On Sunday, last full day of his visit, he will focus his attention almost exclusively on the embattled Christian community, visiting the Nineveh Plain, including the cities of Qaraqosh and Mosul, decimated by ISIS, and celebrate Mass for 10,000 people in a stadium in Erbil, capital of the northern autonomous region of Kurdistan.
He flies back to Rome early morning, and during the four-hour flight he is expected to, as usual, answer questions from the 70 reporters traveling with him.
Archbishop Amel Nona, Chaldean Catholic bishop of Australia and New Zealand, but Archbishop of Mosul until 2014 when he was forced to flee due to the threats of ISIS, said that the papal visit to Iraq is a very important one for the local Christian community, that has “long felt abandoned by everyone.”
“Their future is not very clear,” he told Crux ahead of the visit. “The reason is because of the situation of Iraq in general, but the pope’s visit represents a support and message of hope for their presence in Mesopotamia.”
Christians, he added, have suffered a lot in this country, particularly in the past decades, hence their need for some words of support.
Nona also said that the visit is very important for the country as a whole, “as we know that the situation is very bad from many points of view: politically, economically, corruption-wise and social justice.”
“We hope Pope Francis’ visit can change a bit the hearts of leaders and those in power to change this situation,” he said.
Even though Francis himself said he’s going to Iraq as a “penitential pilgrim,” asking God’s forgiveness for years of war, persecution and destruction, and as a “pilgrim of peace,” hoping to remind people that they are all siblings, the trip is politically loaded too.
Italian Cardinal Fernando Filoni, former papal representative in Iraq during the 2003’ invasion, strongly condemned by then Pope John Paul II, played a key role in stopping the military incursion, even attempting to mediate between the U.S., Great Britain and Saddam Hussein.
“The entire Iraqi community suffered” with the bombardments, said Filoni in a pre-trip interview. He is one of the prelates flying with the pope. Back in 2003, he was the only Western ambassador to remain in Iraq.
Churches and the seminary remained open during the worst of the bombardment, he said, ready to welcome those who needed refuge.
“We knew that it was a war founded in lies,” he told the Italian newspaper Il Messagero. “Everything the [Hussein] regime was accused of did not exist,” including chemical weapons and those of mass destruction.
The Holy See, he said, matured the decision to try to convince both sides – he mentions U.S. and Hussein – to reach an agreement to avoid the worst. The Iraqi leader was ready to negotiate, with his one request, according to Filoni, being that he were not humiliated: “He too, was ready for a change,” the cardinals said.
The cardinal also said that for John Paul II the war in Iraq “was an enormous suffering,” and he encouraged the nunciature to hand out aid to anyone who asked, without discriminating. Filoni was in Iraq from 2001 to 2006.
Filoni, who recently released a book on the Catholic Church in Iraq, defined the papal trip as a “dream come true,” and one that has long been a hoped destination for popes, including John Paul II, who had every intention of going in 1999, but according to the cardinal, that trip was not possible due to Shiite militias that made it impossible for the local government to guarantee the pope’ safety.
Though Francis is not expected to single out the U.S. during the visit, it is possible that he addressed the international community’s responsibility in Iraq’s ongoing crisis and instability, particularly because the pope and the cardinal were sat close to one another during the 4.3-hour flight from Rome to Baghdad.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma