Workers set up a poster of Pope Francis in Arbil, the capital of Iraq's northern autonomous Kurdish region, on March 3, ahead of the first-ever papal visit to Iraq. (Photo: AFP)
It is not without reason Pope Francis chose a Friday to kickstart his visit to Muslim-majority Iraq.
The pontiff is displaying the Western world’s symbolic outreach to Muslims by setting his foot on Iraqi soil on a Friday, the weekly congregational prayer day for all Muslims, to prove that the great Abrahamic religion of Islam stands tall beyond the insignia of Islamophobia and the terrorism tag.
By breaking bread with Muslims on a Friday, the pope is asking the Western world to rethink its confrontational cultural theory of a “clash of civilizations” and down the shutters of all theaters of war in Islamic nations, from Afghanistan to Syria and beyond.
The first-ever papal visit to Iraq amid the threat of Covid-19 is a silver lining in the cloudy dark sky of suspicion, misunderstanding, hate and resultant violence.
Though the papal visit has been reduced to a low-key affair due to health protocols, the bold decision by the 84-year-old pope leads the world to believe that everything is not lost.
Iraq, home to 39 million people, is witnessing a second Covid-19 wave as the pope is preparing for his first trip after a 15-month hiatus due to the pandemic.
The Iraqi government has imposed overnight curfews and weekend lockdowns that will cover the entire papal visit.
An ardent proponent of interfaith harmony, Pope Francis has visited Muslim-majority nations like Bangladesh, Turkey, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.
In Abu Dhabi, he signed a document encouraging Christian-Muslim dialogue along with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the imam of the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo and an influential Sunni leader, in 2019.
In Iraq, Francis will meet Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the influential 90-year-old Shia cleric, at his home in Najaf in central Iraq. Worldwide, there are 200 million Shia Muslims but the majority are in Iraq.
By cementing ties with Ayatollah Sistani, Pope Francis has become a peacemaker among the two antagonist factions of Islam — Shia and Sunni.
From the security perspective, the papal visit to a war-torn country is fraught with risks despite the high security put in place for the three-day visit to six cities. As recently as last month, 32 people were killed and 100 injured in a twin suicide bombing.
“The visit entails risks, and the pope is taking the risks because he sees himself as a pastor, as a father, as one who goes to whoever is in difficulty,” Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Oriental Churches told America magazine.
No wonder the Popemobile will not hit the roads of Baghdad.As the vicar of Christ, the pope has his pastoral concerns to visit the strife-torn Middle Eastern nation.
Iraq's Christian community traces an apostolic preaching origin and is one of the oldest in the world, with Chaldeans and other Catholics forming half and Armenian Orthodox and Protestants forming the rest. Some of them still speak a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Christ.They have been at the receiving end since the US invasion in 2003. Persecution has whittled the Christian population from 1.5 million in 2003 to just 400,000 now. The pope has frequently stressed the need to protect Iraq’s ancient Christian communities and ensure their safe return home.The pope’s 33rd visit abroad during his eight-year pontificate will take him to towns like Erbil in the Kurdish region of Iraq, the northern city of Mosul and Qaraqosh in Nineveh governorate where the now-defunct Islamist terror outfit Islamic State ran riot from 2014 to 2017.
In 2014, Islamic State seized control of Nineveh, ransacking Christian towns and forcing residents to convert or die. Pope Francis endorsed military action against Islamic State at that time.
In Mosul, the pope will visit a memorial to the victims of the Islamic State and in Qaraqosh he will go to Saint Mary al-Tahira Cathedral, damaged by the fanatical fighters.
At a Mass in Erbil football stadium, the number of visitors will be limited due to health protocols.
“He is coming to be face to face with us, to show us he cares about us,” said Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, head of the Chaldean Catholic community in Erbil.
The pope will also pay a visit to Ur, the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham in the southern desert, thus fulfilling the desire of St. Pope John Paul, whose scheduled visit was canceled due to political reasons in 2000.
Pope Francis and the Vatican delegation have been vaccinated, but few among the Iraqis have had Covid-19 jabs.
The Vatican has defended the visit, saying health measures will be enforced. But the pope’s final event is an outdoor Mass at a stadium.
Iraqis have risen to the occasion and the Arabic title "Baba al-Vatican" has already dotted Iraqi streets to reciprocate the papal "act of love."
The visit is set to become a turning point in global Christian-Muslim relations, which can bring subtle but systemic changes in Western-Arab diplomacy.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.