IRAQ – Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church, arrived in Iraq on March 5 for a historic four-day apostolic visit to speak a “message of peace and tolerance” in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic and security concerns.
The Pope’s visit to Iraq is the first papal visit to a Middle Eastern country and his first international trip since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The historic visit also marks Francis’ 33rd apostolic journey during his pontificate.
Francis’ visit came to urge the dwindling number of Iraqi Christians to stay frim and help rebuild the community of Christians who were subjected to years of war and persecution.
The top Catholic clergy landed in Baghdad and was welcomed by President Barham Salih of Iraq.
He was met with empty cordoned streets, Vatican flags, and “Mesopotamia Greets You” signs.
Later in the day, Iraqi Christians welcomed Pope Francis as he arrived at Our Lady of Salvation Church.
On his second day of visit, the pontiff went to Najaf, Iraq to meet with Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, the leader of Iraq’s Shia community – a significant milestone for interreligious dialogue as it is the first time for such meeting between the leaders of the Roman Catholic church and Shi’ite Islam.
From Najaf, Francis then flew to the ancient city of Ur. There, he engaged in inter-religious discussions at the Plain of Ur.
On Sunday, the Pope concluded his apostolic visit by exploring the wreckage in the city of Mosul – a once vibrant and diverse city that was destroyed by the Islamic State (IS) – and by visiting Qaraqosh, an ancient town on the Nineveh plains that experienced genocide.
He was accompanied by the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Najib Mikhael Moussa as they went near the ruins of the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception (al-Tahira-l-Kubra), in Mosul.
As he surveyed the ruins, the Pope held a minute of silence at the destroyed cathedral in Mosul and offered a prayer for both the eternal peace of those who were killed and the repentance of their killers.
“To you we entrust all those whose span of earthly life was cut short by the violent hand of their brothers and sisters,” Francis said. “We also pray to you for those who caused such harm to their brothers and sisters. May they repent, touched by the power of your mercy,” he added.
The pontiff also denounced extremism and fanaticism when he spoke before the Qaraqosh cathedral during a mass.
“How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed,” said the Holy Father as he spoke inside the Church of Immaculate Conception. “Many thousands of people – Muslims, Christians, Yazidis – who were cruelly annihilated by terrorism, and others forcibly displaced or killed, ” he added.
Before retuning to Baghdad on Sunday, Pope Francis celebrated an evening mass for thousands of Iraqi Christians. At the end of the Eucharistic Celebration, the pontiff bade farewell to the nation.