On March 5th, Pope Francis will arrive in Iraq, for the first ever papal visit to the country.
This also marks his first international trip since the beginning of the pandemic almost exactly a year ago.
Addressing the Iraqi people in a video message on the eve of his trip, Pope Francis said he was “coming as a pilgrim, as a penitent pilgrim, to implore from the Lord forgiveness and reconciliation after years of war and terrorism, to beg from God the consolation of hearts and the healing of wounds”.
He continued: “I am coming among you also as a pilgrim of peace… seeking fraternity and prompted by the desire to pray together and to walk together, also with our brothers and sisters of other religious traditions, in the steps of Father Abraham, who joins in one family Muslims, Jews and Christians.”
The Pope told Iraqi Christians: “I want to bring you the affectionate caress of the whole Church, which is close to you and to the war-torn Middle East, and encourages you to keep moving forward.”
The Pope will be welcomed by Iraq’s prime minister and president before meeting bishops and other clergy at a Syriac Catholic church in the capital, Our Lady of Salvation, where 52 Christians and police were killed in an attack by jihadists from a precursor group to IS in 2010.
On March 6th, the Pope will fly south to the Shia holy city of Najaf, where he will visit Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The 90-year-old is the prime marja, or spiritual reference, for millions of Shia in Iraq and elsewhere.
Pope Francis will then attend an interreligious meeting at the ancient site of Ur, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham.
On March 7th, will see him travel to the northern city of Mosul. He will say a prayer of suffrage in Church Square for the victims of the war with IS, which left tens of thousands of civilians dead.
The Pope will also visit nearby Qaraqosh, where Christians have returned since the defeat of IS in 2017 to restore the town’s church and rebuild their homes.
That afternoon, he will celebrate Mass at a stadium in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region, which thousands of people may attend.
Security of the Pope is of paramount importance, in areas that where central to the ISIS Caliphate.
To that purpose, his protection will be left in the hands of approximately 10,000 Iraqi security personnel.
The most significant part, that would protect him from any harm comes from fighters that are part of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).
The PMU is one of the key fighters against ISIS, and most of the groups comprising it are backed by Iran.
A spokesperson for the PMU said that it “is participating in the process of securing the visit of Pope Francis.”
And the fighters will be doing so “specifically in Mosul,” the largest city once held by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), according to the spokesperson. Here, they’ll be “securing the churches” in what’s likely to be one of the most iconic stretches of Francis’ journey, the spokesperson said.
The US frequently accuses the PMU of carrying attacks on its convoys and static positions, with the Iraqi forces denying.
The Biden Administration even carried out its first strikes on units of the PMU along the Iraq-Syria border, and have since received several retaliations of unknown origin.
MORE ON THE TOPIC:
- Four US Supply Convoys Attacked In Iraq Following Ain Assad Rocket Strike
- Iraqi Kurdistan Forces Captured One Of Four Responsible For Rocket Strikes On US Base In Erbil