All Images Courtesy of In Defense of Christians
By Renee Rasmussen
On March 5, 2021, Pope Francis landed in Iraq for the first-ever Papal visit to the war-torn country. Not only did this trip bring excitement due to Francis being the first Pope to be able to visit Iraq, but also as the first Papal trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
When asked how he justified the trip amidst the concerns of the pandemic Francis told ABC News, “I prayed a lot about this. And in the end I took the decision freely,” Francis said. “It came from inside. I said ‘He who makes me decide this way will look after the people.’”
“The people” of Iraq were overjoyed by Francis visiting their land, and it could not have come at a more crucial time. Iraq has been the scene of extreme religious persecution throughout the years, shown in the way one of the world’s oldest Christian communities has decreased from 1.4 million to about 250,000, constituting less than 1% of Iraq’s population. Furthermore, many Christians were forced to leave Iraq when the Islamic State took over northern Iraq in 2014, “destroying their historic churches, seizing their property, and giving them the choice to pay a tax, convert, leave or face death.”
After landing in Baghdad, Francis was greeted by dancers and Iraqi President Barham Salih. He gave his first speech to the Iraqi people, most notably calling for an end to the violence and terrorism that has plagued the country.
Pope Francis being greeted by dancers in the Baghdad airport
“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,” said Francis according to BBC News.
This theme of diversity and acceptance carried throughout his trip. While in Baghdad, Francis held Mass in Our Lady of Salvation, a Syriac Catholic church that was the target of an attack in 2010 by jihadists, which left 52 Christians and police dead.
Pope Francis in Our Lady of Salvation
In his speech in the cathedral, Francis honored the martyred Christians.
“May the memory of their sacrifice inspire us to renew our own trust in the power of the cross and its saving message of forgiveness, reconciliation and rebirth,” Francis said.
Next, Francis visited Najaf, which is considered the holiest city for Shiites in Iraq. Here, Francis met with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a 90-year-old Muslim cleric, who rarely meets with foreign dignitaries, but is seen as the most respected Shiite cleric in Iraq. The meeting lasted about an hour, and the Pope is said to have discussed the importance of friendship between different religious communities.
Pope Francis meeting with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
On Sunday, Francis visited Erbil to meet with Kurdish authorities, including the president and prime minister of the Kurdistan Region, who rule over Iraq’s largest ethnic minority. He then traveled to Mosuel’s Host Al Bieaa to pray for the victims of the war against ISIS.
Pope Francis surrounded by the ruins of the Church of the Immaculate Conception
Finally, he traveled to Quaraqosh, commonly referred to as the heart of Iraq, where he visited the Church of the Immaculate Conception. In 2014, Quaraqosh was invaded by the Islamic State, causing many to be forced to flee the city. In August 2014, the Church of the Immaculate Conception was vandalized and burned, and then turned into a shooting range for the Islamic state.
While visiting, Francis urged the Christians to “Embrace this legacy! It is your strength!” according to Vatican News. “You are not alone! The entire Church is close to you, with prayers and concrete charity,” Francis said.
Later, he specifically called for the youth to stay and rebuild.
“So, I encourage you… do not forget who you are and where you come from!” Francis said. “Do not forget the bonds that hold you together! Do not forget to preserve your roots!”
Pope Francis arriving in Erbil to say Mass
Finally, Francis said Mass in Erbil’s Franso Hariri football stadium. During his homily, he spoke of the preservation and faith of Christianity in Iraq.
“The Church in Iraq, by God’s grace, is already doing much to proclaim this wonderful wisdom of the cross by spreading Christ’s mercy and forgiveness, particularly towards those in greatest need,” said Francis according to Catholic News Agency. “Today, I can see at first hand that the Church in Iraq is alive, that Christ is alive and at work in this, his holy and faithful people.”