Pope Francis embarks on trip to Iraq

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People walk past a poster of Pope Francis and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of Shiite Islam’s most authoritative figures, in Najaf, Iraq, March 4, 2021, ahead of the pope’s planned March 5-8 visit to Iraq. PHOTO: CNS/Alaa Al-Marjani, Reuters

Historic visit taken as a “pilgrimage”

By Cindy Wooden

Pope Francis told the people of Iraq he was going to their country as a “penitential pilgrim,” asking God’s forgiveness for years of war, persecution and destruction, and as a “pilgrim of peace,” hoping to remind people that they are all brothers and sisters no matter their ethnic or religious identity.

“I will finally be among you,” he said in a video message, released by the Vatican on 4 March, the day before the trip was to begin.

“I come as a pilgrim, as a penitential pilgrim to implore forgiveness and reconciliation from the Lord after years of war and terrorism, to ask God for consolation for hearts and healing for wounds,” the pope said. “And I come among you as a pilgrim of peace, to repeat: ‘You are all brothers and sisters.’”

His 5-8 March pilgrimage of peace, he said, would aim to strengthen a sense of fraternity, “animated by the desire to pray together and to walk together, including with brothers and sisters of other religious traditions,” under the gaze of Abraham, who was born in Iraq and is recognised as patriarch by Jews, Christians and Muslims.

A security guard stands next to a poster of Pope. PHOTO: CNS/Teba Sadiq, Reuters

Speaking directly to the nation’s dwindling Christian population, which has suffered discrimination and persecution over the past two decades, Pope Francis praised them for bearing “witness to faith in Jesus in the midst of the most difficult trials.”

“I am honoured to meet a martyred church,” he said. “May the many, too many, martyrs you have known help us to persevere in the humble strength of love.”

Still, he told them, “go forward” and do not allow the pain of the past to destroy hope and trust in God.

Pope Francis said that throughout the years of war and the reign of terror of the Islamic State militants, he thought often of the Iraqi people, especially the Christians, Muslims and Yazidis who suffered so much.

“Now I come to your blessed and wounded land as a pilgrim of hope,” he said.

Pointing to the story of Jonah — recognised as a prophet by Jews, Christians and Muslims — and Nineveh, an ancient city in what is now Iraq, Pope Francis contrasted the threatened destruction with the hope that came from the people turning to God.

“Let us be infected by this hope, which encourages us to rebuild and begin again,” the pope said. “And in these hard times of pandemic, let us help each other to strengthen fraternity, to build together a future of peace — together, brothers and sisters of every religious tradition.”

Pope says he can’t disappoint Iraqis, asks prayers for trip

On the same day that 10 rockets hit an air base in Iraq, Pope Francis said he had to travel to the country because he could not disappoint them.

“The Iraqi people are waiting for us; they awaited St. John Paul II, who was not permitted to go” in 1999, Pope Francis said on 3 March. “One cannot disappoint a people for the second time. Let us pray that this journey will be a good one.”

The pope spoke about the trip at the end of his weekly general audience, telling viewers, “The day after tomorrow, God willing, I will go to Iraq for a three-day pilgrimage.” The trip is scheduled for 5-8 March.

“For a long time, I have wanted to meet those people who have suffered so much; to meet that martyred church in the land of Abraham,” he said.

Pope Francis is pictured in a video screenshot delivering a message to the people of Iraq in advance of his March 5-8 visit. PHOTO: CNS screenshot/Vatican Media

“Together with the other religious leaders, we also will take another step forward in fraternity among believers,” the pope said before traveling to the country where most people are Muslim but coexisted for centuries with Christian and other minority communities.

“I ask you to accompany this apostolic visit with your prayers, so that it may unfold in the best possible way and bear the hoped-for fruits,” Pope Francis said.

Several hours earlier, 10 rockets landed in and near a military base about 100 miles west of Baghdad. The Ain al-Asad airbase hosts Iraqi, US and other coalition troops. No casualties were reported.

The Associated Press reported that it was the first attack since the US struck Iran-aligned militia targets along the Iraq-Syria border on 26 February, creating fears of a series of alternating retaliatory attacks.

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Pope to meet top Shiite leader in Iraq