ROME – Pope Francis on Wednesday asked for prayers for his upcoming trip to Iraq, noting that the Iraqi people have been waiting for a papal visit since Pope St. John Paul II was prevented from going in 1999: “A people cannot be disappointed twice.”
“The day after tomorrow, God willing, I will go to Iraq for a three-day pilgrimage,” Francis said at the end of his televised Wednesday audience. “I have long wanted to meet this people that has suffered so much, encounter that martyred church.”
In the land of Abraham, he added, together with the other religious leaders “we will also take another step forward in the brotherhood among believers.”
The pontiff, who has had his mind set in going to Iraq since 2019, is facing criticism from some quarters that claim it is not safe and even irresponsible for him to do an apostolic visit during a global pandemic.
The COVID-19 crisis has caused havoc to the pope’s own schedule in Rome, with general audiences now being televised from inside the Vatican instead of being held in St. Peter’s Square to avoid crowds.
Repeatedly pressed by journalists on Tuesday about why the trip was going forward, the Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, answered that it is an “act of love for this land, for its people and for its Christians.”
Bruni also highlighted that all the necessary health and safety measures are being put in place for the trip, adding masks and temperature checks will be mandatory at all events.
The three-day trip will see the pontiff visiting five cities besides Baghdad, the country’s capital: Najaf, the third holiest city of Shia Islam; Ur, the birthplace of Abraham; Erbil, capital of the northern Kurdistan region; and Mosul and Qaraqos, in the Nineveh Plain.
“I ask you to accompany this apostolic journey with prayer, so that it may develop in the best way possible and bear the expected fruits,” Francis said Wednesday. “The Iraqi people await us. They were waiting for John Paul II, who was forbidden to go.”
“A people cannot be let down for a second time,” he added. “We pray that this trip can be done well.”
The trip comes amidst not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also as the country faces economic and political instability, as well as the constant threat of terrorism. Several sources on the ground have told Crux that pro-Iranian and rebel militias have replaced the dormant Islamic State terrorist organization as the main perpetrators of crimes against minorities such as Christians and Yazidis, which observers have warned, might drive them out of their ancestral home for good.
Before referring to his upcoming trip, the first outside of Italy in 15 months, since he went to Japan and Thailand in Nov. 2019, Francis also prayed for Myanmar, where dozens of protesters have been killed in recent days protesting the coup which took place earlier this year.
He called for “dialogue to prevail over repression and harmony over discord.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma