For the first time in history, a Pope will be in Iraq as of Friday, March 5. Francis’ objective of this trip: to encourage the fragile Christian minority to endure despite the conflicts and the harshness of life, and to dramatically approach Shiite Islam.
In this cradle of Christianity bloodless by wars and still marked by the advance of the Islamic State (IS) group, Pope Francis will meet with the highest religious authority in part of the Shiite world, the Grand Ayatollah. Ali Sistani in Najaf, south of Baghdad.
It will also be the first stay abroad for the sovereign pontiff since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, after having been duly vaccinated. And for this historical visit, Pope Francis saw the big picture. On the menu, in particular, some of the most emblematic places in the country.
Baghdad, the fortress
On Friday, the Pope will deliver a speech at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Baghdad’s central Karrada district. On October 31, 2010, al-Qaeda jihadists had carried out the bloodiest hostage-taking against Iraqi Christians: 44 worshipers, two priests and seven members of the security forces had been killed.
Today, the stained glass windows have been replaced by glass plates with the names of the victims and on the altar a message proclaims: “Where is your victory, then, death?”. The faithful are less and less and the doors are hidden behind huge concrete blocks. For the arrival of the Pope, the latter were repainted with the colors of the Iraqi flag and huge portraits of the sovereign pontiff are displayed there.
Najaf, the saint
In a new hand extended to Islam, Pope Francis will also visit Najaf, 150 km south of Baghdad. At 1,230 years old, the city is one of the holiest places in Shi’ism because it is home to the golden-domed mausoleum of Imam Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and a founding figure of Shiite Islam.
On Saturday, Najaf will host a summit: the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics, Pope Francis, 84, will be received by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest religious authority in most countries. Shiites from Iraq and many Shiites from around the world. , 90 years.
The frail man with the long white beard has never been seen in public and only receives very rare dignitaries in his Spartan home. Enough to make this “personal visit” more solemn and exceptional.
Pilgrimage of Abraham
This is the most spiritual moment and the reason why Pope Francis was so eager to come to Iraq: Ur, birthplace of the patriarch Abraham according to the Bible, is called “Ur of the Chaldeans” in the holy book.
In this city located in the southern province of Zi Qar, Pope will pray with Muslims, Yazidis and Sabians on Saturday, two monotheisms born before Christianity. The now ruined city was founded in the 6th millennium BC before becoming one of the main cities of Sumerian Mesopotamia – Ur also means “city” in Sumerian. Its main monument is the “ziggurat”, a multi-story pyramidal structure discovered in the 1930s.
Mosul and Qaraqoch
The province of Nineveh (north) is the cradle of the Christians of Iraq. The capital of this province, Mosul, remained for three years, until 2017, under the yoke of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS). In Mosul, Pope Francis will visit al-Tahira church on Sunday. The first writings about it date back to the 17th century, but according to some historians, the church was built up to 1,000 years earlier.
The Pope will travel the same day to Qaraqoch, some 30 km further south. This town, whose existence dates back to before Christianity, is today populated mainly by Christians who speak a modern form of Aramaic.. Largely destroyed by ISIS, the city is now under stress due to the presence of many armed groups attached to the state.
Erbil, the refuge
For Pope Francis, Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan in the north, will perhaps be one of the most enjoyable stages. On Sunday he will preside over an open-air mass in a stadium that has been registered by thousands of faithful. Even if the city of Erbil is a Kurdish, therefore Muslim stronghold, it had opened its doors wide to hundreds of thousands of Christians, but also to Yazidis and Muslims, fleeing ISIS.