IRBIL, Iraq – Pope Francis has arrived in Iraq for the first ever papal visit to the predominantly Muslim country. He begins a four-day visit to Baghdad where yellow and white Vatican flags and portraits of the pontiff float on hastily weeded traffic circles.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi welcomed Francis at Baghdad International Airport. He was greeted with fanfare as he walked down the red carpet and then by a choir as he entered the airport.
Crowds waved Iraqi and Vatican flags as he passed by to speak to the Prime Minister in a reception area of the airport. The conversation was not broadcast. As Francis left the airport, he passed people dancing and singing, few of whom were wearing masks.
The pope will travel through the capital to the presidential palace and meet with President Barham Saleh later Friday.
Meeting with Iraqi Christians
During the trip, Francis will meet with leaders of the declining Iraqi Christian community and hold an interfaith meeting at the ancient site of Ur, the traditional birthplace of Biblical Abraham, revered by three religions as the founder of monotheism.
On Saturday, Francis will be received by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leader of the Shia Muslims of Iraq. On Sunday, he will travel to the north of the country, including Mosul, and lead prayers in areas taken over from extremists in the Islamic state.
“I come as a pilgrim, a repentant pilgrim, to ask the Lord for forgiveness and reconciliation after years of war and terrorism,” he said in a video message before the trip. “To ask God for the consolation of hearts and the healing of wounds.”
For Iraqi Christians, whose history goes back almost to the time of Jesus, the visit is eagerly awaited. Pope John Paul II wanted to visit Iraq in 2000, but negotiations with the dictator Saddam Hussein fell through.
“It’s a joy and a blessing,” says day laborer Tony Fawzi, after recently attending mass at a Chaldean Catholic church in Baghdad. “And it’s not just a visit for Christians, but for Iraq in general.”
“‘Work fast’ to prepare
Religious leaders worked hard to prepare for the visit, particularly in the town of Qaraqosh near Mosul, where a Syriac Catholic church was among those burned and gutted in 2014 when ISIS activists set fire to the Nineveh Plains.
“We began rebuilding the church at the end of 2019,” said Father Ammar Yako of the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh. They had hoped to complete the renovation in time for this year’s Easter Mass, “but when we learned that the pope was going to visit Iraq, especially this church, we began working quickly to finish it,” he said.
“Really, now the church is so beautiful,” he said. “And the first person who will pray there after the renovation will be the Holy Father.
Yako said he could never have imagined such a thing a few years ago. After the city was taken over by ISIS in 2017, the houses were burned down and the inhabitants disappeared. Now just under half of the residents have returned, he says, and perhaps the papal visit will inspire others.
“That’s what we hope this visit will do for the future,” he says.
Private audience with Sistani
In Najaf, however, the Pope’s meeting with Sistani will take place in private audience in the modest house of the reclusive cleric, whom he has rarely left for decades.
The visit is considered historic by the clerical establishment in Najaf, says Hayder al-Khoei, director of international relations at an institute run by his family. His grandfather, Grand Ayatollah Abulqasim al-Khoei, was Sistani’s predecessor and teacher.
“Both the Shia Islamic establishment and the Catholic Church have consistently condemned violence committed in the name of religion,” Khoei said. “And I think this is an issue that will be discussed between the Pope and Sistani.”
He adds that, by coincidence, he met the two men. “And it is striking how similar their personalities are. Thus, even as individuals, in terms of composure, piety, they will meet on a personal level, not only philosophical”.
This visit comes despite an increase in recent missile attacks on military bases and on the American embassy, whose American officials accuse the militias supported by Iran. Last week, U.S. air strikes hit buildings used by these militias just across the border in S