‘Pilgrim of Peace’ arrives in Iraq


Pope Francis hopes to encourage the Christian community to remain in their ancient homeland and extend a hand of friendship to the Islamic world, reports Asian Lite News

Pope Francis landed in Baghdad on Friday on a historic trip to the war-battered country, defying security fears and the coronavirus pandemic to comfort one of the world’s oldest Christian communities. He was received at the airport by Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, the Iraqi prime minister.

The 84-year-old pontiff, who said he was making the first-ever papal visit to Iraq as a ‘pilgrim of peace,’ will also reach out to Shiite Muslims when he meets Iraq’s top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.

Pope Francis — the first pontiff ever to set foot in Iraq —hopes to encourage the dwindling Christian community to remain in their ancient homeland while also extending a hand of friendship to the Islamic world.

The three-day “pilgrimage” comes despite a recent spike in coronavirus cases in Iraq and an upsurge in violence. Francis arrived just days after a rocket attack on the Ain al-Assad base in Iraq’s western desert, which hosts US-led coalition troops.

One civilian contractor was killed in Wednesday’s barrage, which the US has blamed on Iran-backed militias. Benedict XVI, who resigned as pontiff eight years ago, warned in an interview on Monday that the visit is “a dangerous trip: for reasons of security and for coronavirus.”

Pope Francis said, “For a long time I have wanted to meet these people who have suffered so much. I ask you to accompany this apostolic journey with your prayers so that it may take place in the best possible way and bear the hoped-for fruits.

“The Iraqi people are waiting for us, they were waiting for Saint John Paul II, who was forbidden to go. One cannot disappoint a people for the second time. Let us pray that this journey will be successful.”

This is Francis’ first trip abroad in about 15 months due to the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent restrictions on movement. Although the Argentine pontiff and his entourage have all been vaccinated against Covid-19, no such inoculation campaign has taken place in Iraq. The majority of the country will be under strict lockdown during his visit and movement between provinces will be restricted.

After his arrival, the Pope headed to the presidential palace for a private meeting with President Barham Salih, who introduced him to local political and religious authorities. Salih has met the pope in Rome on two occasions: the first time on Nov. 24, 2018, and against on January 25 last year.

Later in the day, Pope Francis will meet with the Christian community at the Syrian Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where at least 47 Christians died in a Daesh attack in 2010. 

Perhaps the most keenly anticipated leg of the visit falls on Saturday, when Francis travels to Najaf, the shrine city where Imam Ali, the fourth Islamic caliph, is buried. Here Francis will meet with the 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites.

First Pope to visit the Arabian Peninsula

Francis became the first Pope to visit the Arabian Peninsula two years ago when he met with Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, in Abu Dhabi. There, the two faith leaders signed a document on “human fraternity for world peace” and issued a joint call for freedom of belief.

Saturday’s visit to Najaf will be the first face-to-face meeting between a Catholic pontiff and a Shiite ayatollah. The meeting at Al-Sistani’s modest home is billed as “a courtesy visit” — so no joint declaration is expected, although a verbal statement is likely. It will nevertheless mark a symbolic moment whereby the pope extends a hand of friendship to the other main branch of Islam.

There are significant geopolitical undertones, however. Al-Sistani is widely seen as a counterweight to Iran’s influence in Iraq and among Shiites as a whole. By meeting with him, Francis is effectively recognizing Sistani as the pre-eminent voice of Shiite Islam over his powerful rival, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

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