Pope Francis's visit to Iraq
Pope Francis's visit to Iraq took place between 5 March and 8 March 2021. The visit was accorded on following an invitation of the Government of Iraq and the local Catholic Church. The visit was remembered as an attempt to mend bridges between the different faiths in Iraq. With this visit, Pope Francis became the first Pope to visit Iraq.
Pope John Paul II wanted to visit Ur, the birthplace of Abraham according to the biblical tradition during a journey through the Middle East including Israel, Jordan and Palestine but the journey was cancelled due to differences between the Government of Saddam Hussein and the representatives of the Holy See.
The preparations for the visit were nearing completion early in 2020, when he met the President of Iraq, Barham Salih, at an audience in the Vatican on 25 January of that year. On the 7 December 2020, the Holy See Press Director Matteo Bruni released a statement confirming that Pope Francis would make an apostolic visit after accepting the invitation of the Republic of Iraq and the local Catholic Church to visit the Middle Eastern country of Iraq between 5–8 March 2021. It was his first apostolic visit since November 2019 as journeys were canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic throughout 2020. Pope Francis mentioned he would arrive as a penitent pilgrim and pray for forgiveness after a long period of interreligious conflicts during the civil war in Iraq. Despite the fact that the Ambassador of the Vatican, Archbishop Misko Leskovar contracted Covid-19 and remained in self-isolation, the Pope wanted to travel to Iraq. During the visit, several security measures were taken to address the Covid-19 pandemic as well as threats of terrorist attacks. The visit to Ali Al-Sistani in Najaf was prepared with great care to details such as what beverages will be taken or on for how many meters Pope Francis will walk to Al Sistani home. Before arrival, Francis, 20 members of his entourage, and more than 70 journalists who accompanied them were vaccinated against COVID-19.
5 March 2021
He landed in Baghdad on the 5 March and addressed the Iraqi population through a televised speech acknowledging the importance of Iraq as a cradle of civilizations. Upon his arrival at the Baghdad International Airport, the pope was given a welcome gift of a replica from a work of Mohammed Ghani Hikmat depicting the Passion of Jesus before his crucifixion, by the Iraqi President Barham Salih. He also met with the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi and members of the christian cleric.
6 March 2021
On the 6 March 2021 he visited Najaf, where he met the Shia cleric and Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani. The meeting took place in the home of Al Sistani nearby the Imam Ali Shrine. They released a joint statement against religious extremism. On the same day he visited Ur, which according to the Bible is the birthplace of Abraham, whom Jews, Muslims and Christians consider is their religious father. In the evening he returned to Baghdad where he held a mass in the Church of St.Joseph. It was the first time, that Pope Francis delivered a liturgy according to the eastern rite.
7 March 2021
On the 7 March 2021 he visited the demolished Syriac Catholic Church of Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh. at Mosul's Church Square, which is surrounded by churches of four different christian faiths, the Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, the Chaldean and Armenian Orthodox. At the square he held a mass and prayed for the fraternity between the different religions in Iraq. The location of the gathering was decorated by two symbolic christian crosses. One was crafted with the wood from the ruined churches in Bakhdida/Qaraqosh. The other one was made by Omar Qais, an Iraqi artist from Mosul. The Pope brought back to Iraq a 500-year old Aramean prayer book from the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh, which was brought to Italy after ISIL captured the city. The book was restored under the auspices of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage in Italy. The same day, he also visited Erbil in Kurdistan Region, where he was received by the politicians Nechirvan Barzani, Masoud Barzani, Masrour Barzani and Qubad Talabani. He acknowledged the safeguarding role the KRG played for the Christians during the Iraqi Civil War against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In Erbil, he gave a mass in front of 10'000 participants in the Franso Hariri stadium in Erbil.
8 March 2021
On 8 March 2021, he left Iraq from Baghdad after he met with Iraqi President Barham Salih during a farewell ceremony.
To remember his visit in Kurdistan Region, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) revealed a set of six stamps which included one depicting the head of Pope Francis surrounded by a map which resembled a Greater Kurdistan which includes areas in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. This lead to criticism by Turkey who demanded explications for this “grave mistake“ and prosecuted the Kurdish MP of the Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) Berdan Öztürk for terrorist propaganda for defending the issuing of the commemorative stamp. Iran also criticized the stamp, mentioning that the map depicted is contrary to international law. KRG authorities responding to the criticism explained that the stamps did not yet count with the authorization to be printed.
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