ROME – After a year of no travel due to the coronavirus pandemic, Pope Francis will make a three-day visit to Iraq in March – a trip he had hoped to take last year to support the nation’s small Christian minority, but which was deemed impossible due to security concerns and COVID-19.

In a Dec. 7 statement, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said that the pope, at the invitation of the Republic of Iraq and the local Catholic Church, will make an Apostolic Journey to the country from March 5-8, 2021, with several stops along the way.

According to the Vatican, Francis will visit the Iraqi capital of Baghdad; the plain of Ur, traditionally held to be the birthplace of the biblical figure of Abraham; the city of Erbil, where most Christians fled during the ISIS takeover of the Nineveh Plain in 2014; Mosul, which was ISIS’s headquarters in Iraq and which was partially destroyed during the fight to liberate it; and Qaraqosh, which, prior to ISIS’s insurgency, was hailed as the Christian capital of Iraq.

No formal schedule for the visit has been released, but the Vatican said the details of the trip will be published “in due course” and will “take into consideration the evolution of the worldwide health emergency” due to COVID-19.

This will be the first international trip Pope Francis has taken since the coronavirus broke out in late 2019. He postponed a May 2020 visit to the island of Malta as a result of the pandemic, and a new date for the trip has not yet been released.

Francis was also expected to make a visit to East Timor, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea this year, but that trip was also called off as a result of the pandemic.

In January, Pope Francis met with Iraqi president Barham Saleh at the Vatican, urging Saleh to guarantee the safety of Christians and ensure they have a future in the war-torn country.

With the small number of Christians who remained in Iraq post-ISIS still caught in the middle of ethnic and regional spats, a continued exodus has long-stoked fears that the days of Christianity in the country are numbered, meaning a papal visit would be a sign of encouragement and consolation to those who have chosen to stay.

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