Pope Francis' planned Iraq trip sparks security, health fears

Francis will be the first pope to visit Iraq

So much rests upon Pope Francis' shoulders. So many hopes are pinned on his historic trip to Iraq. 

Add to the formidable pressure of lifting spirits in a war-torn country, there is a very real terrorist threat. And a raging pandemic. On Friday, the pontiff heads to a country where ISIS tried to eliminate Christians not so long ago. He will visit places that have been devastated, he will visit places that have historic significance for Christians, and some of his stops will be both.

"In every part of the country that Pope Francis will visit there are scars – scars of war, of loss, of trauma," Mina Al-Oraibi, editor in chief of The National newspaper based in Abu Dhabi, wrote in her paper last week. "Today Iraq is a battlefield fighting terrorism, corruption, COVID-19, militias and foreign intervention seeking to weaken the country at every level. Despite these wars, or perhaps in spite of them, the pope has decided to embark on a four-day journey that will have him criss-cross the country and reinforce the historic and natural place of Christians in Iraq and the Arab world."

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For an 84-year-old man who lost part of a lung when he was 21, this is an undertaking.

Pope Francis will be the first pope to visit Iraq. He has been vaccinated and the journalists accompanying him have too, but people on the ground won't have been. Vaccines in Iraq have yet to be rolled out. The Papal Nuncio in Baghdad – the Holy See's ambassador to the country – has just come down with COVID-19. He had been the point person on the ground for this trip.

For health risks, as well as security concerns, the pope’s visit to Iraq was in the balance for some time. A twin-suicide bombing in Baghdad in January killed 32 people. The pope presses on.

"I am pastor of people who are suffering," he has said.

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The pope will have to forgo his beloved Popemobile for security reasons, but that has not dimished the anticipation on the ground. Preparations for the trip are documented day by day. As Al-Oraibi pointed out, relatively few dignitaries visit Iraq and when they do, it is often kept secret until they are on the ground. They are likely to stay in the Green Zone or other fortified locales. In contrast, the Vatican published the pope's itinerary well in advance. 

He will visit Our Lady of Salvation church, which was hit by six suicide bombers in 2010. He will visit Mosul, which ISIS took over in 2014 and held until 2017 and where the terror organization wrought devastation, destroying or damaging among other valued property, a cluster of churches – Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Chaldean Catholic – locally known as Church Square. ISIS used the property for trying people, jailing them and for administrative work.

The pope will visit what is left of the compound, and the symbolism will be powerful. Father Raed Adel is the last priest living in Mosul.

"This site was used as a main center by ISIS religious police," Adel said. "A center of the IS leadership. So this is an important issue, the visit of the Pope to this site that was the central administrative center of the Islamic State. This is where the Islamic State said 'we will go to Rome, occupy Rome, and cut off the head of the Pope.'"

Iraq's Christian community is just one-fifth the size it was when the 2003 war began. Optimists hope that the pope's visit will help lure exiled Christians back.

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One woman in Baghdad put it this way: "This visit gives us hope to adhere to our land and our country despite the suffering we have lived through, the killing, kidnapping, massacres against Christians and churches, and theft of [Christian-owned] property which continues to this day," Aklas Bahnam said. "But, this visit will encourage many of our Christian people abroad to be optimistic and have hope that they will be able to return."

The head of the Chaldean Catholic Church said it will take more than a papal visit to bring Christians back en masse.

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"Christians, [the Pope] will encourage them to persevere, to stay persevere, and also to rebuild the trust with their neighbors," said Louis Raphaël I Sako. "To encourage people to come back, this is not his job. This is the job of the government to create good conditions for them, security and also, you know, jobs and so on. Maybe some people will come back when conditions are normal, and life is fair, and the dignity. And this can be only when Iraq has democratic regime and also based on citizenship and to separate religion from the state."

Planners are doing their best to ensure social distancing is observed and some of the church services will be small. But apparently 10,000 people are signed up for an event planned for a stadium in Erbil raising fears of a well-intentioned and needed gathering turning into a super-spreader occasion.

In addition to Erbil, the Holy Father will visit Ur, said to be the birthplace of Abraham, father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and he'll visit the holiest city for Shi'ites, Najaf. If there was ever a trip meant to take the steam out of sectarianism, this is it. One Iraqi expressed the hope that this high-profile visit of reconciliation will enhance the perception of Christians among other communities in Iraq.