ROME – Come hell or high water, Pope Francis is determined to visit Iraq March 5-8, unfazed by the threat of terrorism, the political and social instability, and the country’s rising COVID-19 numbers.
Repeatedly pressed by journalists on Tuesday about why the trip was going forward, the Vatican spokesman answered that it is an “act of love for this land, for its people and for its Christians.”
There area that is now Iraq plays an important role in the Bible: The second account of Creation in the Book of Genesis has God taking mud from the Tigris river to create Man; it is also where one finds the ruins of Abraham’s birthplace, the city of Ur; and the Nineveh Plain is the location of the Book of Jonah.
Yet this will be the first papal trip to Iraq, a country that both St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI tried to visit.
It will also represent the first time a pope says Mass in the Chaldean rite, the predominant Catholic Church in the country; it will be the first papal meeting with a Grand Ayatollah of the Shia branch of Islam – Ali al-Sistani, in the city of Najaf; and yes, the first papal trip during a global pandemic.
For this reason, Matteo Bruni, the director of the Holy See’s press office, said that all the possible precautions have been taken to avoid the trip becoming a COVID-19 vector. These include the pope moving around in a closed car instead of the traditional popemobile, to avoid crowds in the streets; the number of attendees to each event being drastically cut to allow for social distance; and the use of facemasks will be mandatory.
The largest event will take place on Sunday, when Francis will celebrate Mass in the “Franso Hariri” stadium in Erbil. Only 10,000 people will be allowed in the 30,000-seat facility, and they will be in assigned seating.
Pope Francis has already been vaccinated against COVID-19, as have the 70-plus journalists traveling with him on the papal plane.
However, Iraq only began its vaccination campaign on Tuesday, meaning most attending papal events will not have been inoculated against the coronavirus.
Bruni mentioned during the press briefing on Tuesday that 57 percent of the country’s population is under the age of 25, which might help explain why the country counts 341 coronavirus related deaths per million, compared to 1,561 deaths per million in the United States, and 1,624 deaths per million in Italy.
The organizers have other concerns beyond the pandemic, and the papal spokesman acknowledged it is possible Francis will comply with the Iraqi government’s request for him to use an armored car.
Asked why the trip couldn’t be postponed, the spokesman said if nothing else, it should have happened earlier, but this period was “the first possible moment for a journey like this.”
“There is also an urgency in things, all the precautions have been taken from a health point of view, but perhaps the best way to interpret this journey is as an act of love for this land, for its people and for its Christians,” Bruni said. “Every act of love can be interpreted as extreme, but as an extreme confirmation to be loved and confirmed in that love.”
For Francis, the trip is a three-fold mission: to encourage the local Christian community, which has been a long-time victim of persecution and extremism; to pursuing dialogue with Shia Islam; and to encounter the Iraqi nation as a whole.
What Bruni didn’t say is that Christians, and the other minorities of Iraq, are still facing extinction. Though officially ISIS has been defeated, jihadism in Iraq has not, and attacks and violent crimes by militias against minorities still happen daily.
“Obviously the pope also looked at the need” of confirming the Iraqi people “in their faith,” but also “in terms of love, as is the mission of the successor of Peter,” Bruni said.
As criticism from some quarters outside of Iraq continued to grow about the trip, 29 faith-based organizations that work on the ground released a joint statement in support of the visit.
“Iraq is the cradle of human civilization and a beautiful country of rich cultural and religious diversity,” reads the statement released late on Tuesday. “For centuries, many ethnic and faith communities lived side by side in this land. However, in recent decades, Iraq has suffered from war, insecurity and instability and, most recently, from the rise of ISIS. Such a sequence of conflicts has deeply strained relations between communities and damaged the country’s social fabric.”
Signatories included Islamic Relief Worldwide, Jesuit Refugee Service, Lutheran World Federation, Catholic Relief Service, and the pontifical foundation Catholic Near East Welfare Association.
The statement said Iraq still faces daunting challenges: There are 1.2 million internally displaced Iraqis and over 4.8 million returnees who have gone home to cities and villages that need rebuilding.
“Meanwhile, a worsening economic crisis, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is pushing many into poverty and depriving the government of resources needed to assist its own people,” the statement says.
“As faith-based organizations, we fully embrace this message of fraternity and dialogue that Pope Francis is bringing to Iraq,” it continues. “We firmly believe it represents a necessary way forward to heal past wounds and build a future for the country’s diverse communities. We work in collaboration with the national and local Authorities to help communities reconcile, rebuild peace, and reclaim their collective rights to safety, services, and livelihoods.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma