World Pope to visit Iraq regions once held by IS group
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Pope Francis will visit parts of northern Iraq that were held by Islamic State (IS) militants on the third day of his historic trip to the country.
Militants overran the region in 2014, destroying historic churches and looting. Christians have been returning there since IS was defeated in 2017.
The Pope will also celebrate Mass at a football stadium in the city of Irbil, with up to 10,000 attendees expected.
There are fears the ritual could become a coronavirus super-spreader event.
Iraq has seen a sharp rise in Covid-19 infections over the past month, and along with security fears over the pontiff's visit, it is one of his riskiest trips yet.
Francis prepares first-ever papal visit to Iraq
Pope Francis is to start the first-ever papal visit to Iraq on Friday, an act of solidarity with an ancient but dwindling Christian community and a symbolic outreach to Muslims. At the time, Pope Francis endorsed military action against IS and considered visiting northern Iraq in solidarity with Christians there. Video: Iraqi Christians, decimated by Islamist violence, prepare for pope's visit (Reuters) Your browser does not support this video That trip never materialised, but Francis has kept a close eye on Iraq, condemning the killing of unarmed protesters during mass anti-government rallies from 2019.
The 84-year-old leader of the Catholic Church and his entourage have all been vaccinated, but Iraq only received its first batch of doses last week.
The four-day trip, which began on Friday, is the pontiff's first international excursion since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago, and the first ever papal visit to the country.
Some Shia militant groups have reportedly opposed the visit, suggesting the tour amounts to Western interference in the country's affairs.
On Sunday, the Pope will visit Mosul - a former IS stronghold for three years - where he will say prayers in Church Square for the victims of the war with the Sunni Muslim militant group, which left tens of thousands of civilians dead.
Pope Francis goes to Iraq to rally fading Christians amid pandemic
Pope Francis heads to Iraq on Friday to urge the country’s dwindling number of Christians to stay put and help rebuild the country after years of war and persecution, brushing aside the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns to make his first-ever papal visit. Iraqis were keen to welcome him and the global attention his visit will bring, with banners and posters hanging high in central Baghdad, and billboards depicting Francis with the slogan "We are all Brothers" decorating the main thoroughfare.
He will then visit Iraq's largest church, which was partly destroyed by IS, in nearby Qaraqosh, where Christians have returned since the group's defeat.
About 10,000 Iraqi Security Forces personnel have been deployed to protect the Pope during his visit, while round-the-clock curfews have also been imposed to limit the spread of Covid.
What message is the Pope delivering?
Since arriving in Baghdad on Friday, Pope Francis has called for an end to violence and extremism and said that Iraq's dwindling Christian community should have a more prominent role as citizens with full rights, freedoms and responsibilities.
"The age-old presence of Christians in this land, and their contributions to the life of the nation, constitute a rich heritage that they wish to continue to place at the service of all," he said in his first speech in the country.
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Pope Francis trended on Twitter Friday amid his visit to Iraq. The day prior, one social media user declared that he used to work an odd job that could be considered surprising for a pope."I come as a penitent, asking forgiveness from Heaven and our brothers for so much destruction and cruelty; a pilgrim of peace, in the name of Christ, Prince of Peace. How we have prayed, in these years, for peace in #Iraq! God always listens. It is up to us to walk His paths," the pope tweeted Friday.
On Saturday, in a highly symbolic meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf, the Pope echoed this message, saying that Christians should be able to live in peace and security like all other Iraqis.
Audiences with the reclusive 90-year-old spiritual leader of millions of Shia Muslims are rare, but he received the Pope for around 50 minutes, the pair talking without face masks.
The Pope then visited the site of the ancient city of Ur, believed to be the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, who is revered in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
In a message delivered there, he said: "We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion... let us not allow the light of heaven to be overshadowed by the clouds of hatred."
Iraq has been wracked by religious and sectarian violence, both against minorities and between Shia and Sunni Muslims too.
How vulnerable are Iraq's Christians?
One of the world's oldest Christian communities has seen its numbers plummet over the last two decades from 1.4 million to about 250,000, less than 1% of the country's population.
Pope Francis meets with senior Iraqi Shi'ite cleric
Pope Francis has met and spoken to Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani - southern Iraq's top shi'ite cleric - in a historic meeting of Catholic and Shi'ite Muslim leadership.It's part of the first ever papal visit to the Gulf state this weekend.
Many have fled abroad to escape the violence that has plagued the country since the US-led invasion in 2003 that ousted Saddam Hussein.
Tens of thousands were also displaced when militants from the Sunni Muslim Islamic State (IS) group overran northern Iraq in 2014, destroying their historic churches, seizing their property, and giving them the choice to pay a tax, convert, leave or face death.
Ain 2019 found that Christians, as well as Sunni Muslims, complained of harassment at checkpoints by Shia security forces and some discrimination in education.
On his arrival on Friday, the Pope said Iraq's Christian community should have a more prominent role as citizens with full rights, freedoms and responsibilities.
Who are Iraq's Christians?
- People in what is now Iraq embraced Christianity in the 1st Century AD
- According to the US state department, Christian leaders estimate there are fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining in Iraq, with the largest population - at least 200,000 - living in the Nineveh Plain and Kurdistan Region in the north of the country
- Approximately 67% of those are Chaldean Catholics, whose Eastern-rite Church retains its own liturgy and traditions but recognises the authority of the pope in Rome. Another 20% are members of the Assyrian Church of the East, believed to be the oldest in Iraq
- The rest are Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, as well as Anglican, Evangelical and other Protestants
Pope's Iraq Trip Must Highlight Precarious Situation of Assyrian Christians | Opinion .
Rather than highlight the plight of Assyrians and other Christian groups in the Middle East, Pope Francis' visit may end up worsening their situation. If this ongoing ethnic cleansing of Assyrians and other minorities from Iraq continues under a veneer of respectability, this will ultimately lead to their complete erasure from their ancestral homeland, as was the case with the Jews of Iraq.Bradley Martin is the executive director for the Near East Center for Strategic Studies.The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.