Head of the Catholic Church visits Iraq in order to meet Ayatollah Sistani, grand Shiite cleric, amid the second wave of Covid-19 outbreak in the country.
Amid the fears of outbreak of the global pandemic, Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church made his first trip to Iraq, a country which has one of the world’s oldest Christian cultures. Besides talking with Christians, he addressed Muslims and stressed the security problems that they are confronting nowadays in world.
Francis arrived at Baghdad International Airport on Firday. He had been wearing a mask on the flight, and after descending the stairs, he was greeted by two masked children dressed in traditional gown.
Then he was welcomed by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and groups performing Iraqi folklore music and dance on the red carpet. He met President Barham Salih, as well as other government and religious officials in presidential palace.
In his opening speech, Pope Francis called for an end to violence, and terrorism all around the world, especially Iraq. He said Iraqis has suffered from war and political conflicts for a long time, and now they are coping with Coronavirus. “Iraq has suffered the disastrous effects of wars, the scourge of terrorism and sectarian conflicts often grounded in a fundamentalism incapable of accepting the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups,” he said. It’s time to put an end to severity imposed on them.
Pope who has always been a promoter of reconciliation, stressed the immediate necessity for it and hoped “May the clash of arms be silenced … May there be an end to acts of violence and extremism.”
Francis emphasized that Christianity has deep roots in Iraq and said the long presence of Christians in this country has formed a rich legacy that they wish to put at the service of all people. He also asked Iraqi officials to “combat the scourge of corruption, misuse of power and disregard for law.”
Pope declared that among so many who have suffered a lot in this country, his thoughts turn to the Yazidis, innocent victims of senseless and barbaric massacres. Like Iraq’s Christian people, they were devastated by the ISIS forces in 2014.
When he visited Iraq’s top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the pope said he is making the first-ever papal visit to Iraq and called himself a “pilgrim of peace.” He stays in Iraq for 4 days. He said it was his first trip outside the Vatican since the outbreak of Coronavirus, which left the chief of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics feeling “caged” inside the Vatican.
Pope’s trip to Iraq coincidences exactly by the spread of the second wave of coronavirus which led to full lockdown during his visit. However, hundreds of people gathered in airport to have the chance of visiting him from distance. They welcomed him with banners and posters in central Baghdad with the message of “We are all Brothers.”
The pope’s visit has had a profound impact on Iraq’s Christians, whose numbers have decreased from 1.5 million in 2003 to less than 400,000 today as a result of years of persecution and violence.
He’ll also visit the northern province of Nineveh, where ISIS forced minorities to leave, convert to Islam, or face death in 2014. As the result, around 100,000 Christians – about half of the province’s population – left, with just 36,000 returning. A third of them, have expressed a desire to leave Iraq because of the violence which severely affected their lives.
The visit aims not only to inspire Christians to remain in their homeland, but also to persuade some emigrants from neighboring countries like Lebanon and Jordan, as well as from further afield such as Canada and Australia, to return.
Francis said there had been “too many martyrs” in Iraq and remembered “the wounds of loved ones left behind and homes abandoned.” He also said “I come as a pilgrim, a penitent pilgrim to implore forgiveness and reconciliation from the Lord after years of war and terrorism.”