Pope Francis arrived in Baghdad on Friday for a three-day visit to Iraq, undeterred by suggestions that his trip might fuel a surge in coronavirus cases, undaunted by the precarious security situation and committed to offering support to a Christian community decimated by years of war.
It’s the first trip Francis has embarked on since the pandemic swept the world and the first time a head of the Roman Catholic Church is believed to have visited the country.
The journey promises to be as rich in symbolism as it is fraught with risk.
“I am happy to travel again,” the pope said, taking off his blue surgical mask to address reporters en route to Iraq. His Alitalia flight was accompanied by U.S. aircraft from the Ain al-Asad military base after entering Iraqi airspace.
By choosing Iraq as his first destination since the pandemic began, Francis waded directly into the issues of war and peace, and poverty and religious strife, in an ancient biblical land.
“This trip is emblematic,” he said, calling it “a duty to a land martyred for many years.”
He was welcomed by a small color guard and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
The pope left the airport complex in a black BMW, his window rolled down. He waved as he passed a small group of faithful behind a metal fence on the side of the highway. It was the start of a journey that will take him to battle-scarred churches and desert pilgrimage sites.
In an area known as the cradle of civilization, the modern history of Mesopotamia — now present-day Iraq — has been scarred by lasting hardship: three decades of despotic rule, followed by two decades of war and a wave of carnage unleashed by the Islamic State.
Once a rich tapestry of faiths, Iraq has been hallowed out as orthodoxies hardened. Its Jews are almost completely gone, and its Christian community grows smaller every year. About one million have fled since the 2003 United States-led invasion. An estimated 500,000 remain.
That backdrop makes the pope’s visit on Saturday to the ancient city of Ur — traditionally held to be the birthplace of Abraham, who is revered by Muslims, Jews and Christians alike — all the more powerful.
To that end, his trip carries a motto from the Gospel of Matthew: “You are all brothers.”
But the pope’s agenda also casts a spotlight on the terrible toll wrought when divisions harden and violence takes over.
On Friday evening he will meet with priests, bishops and others at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad. Just over a decade ago, the church came under assault when attackers unleashed fusillade of grenades, bullets and suicide vests. At least 58 people were killed in the assault, which was carried out by an affiliate of Al Qaeda.
It was far from the deadliest massacre in the country, where tens of thousands of Muslims have died in war and sectarian fighting, but the attack tore at the heart of the Christian community.
The Rev. Meyassr al-Qasboutros, a priest who survived the assault, told the New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid that the priest’s cousin, Wassim Sabih, was one of the two priests killed.
Father Sabih, according to survivors, was pushed to the ground as he grasped a crucifix and pleaded with the gunmen to spare the worshipers.
He was then killed.
“We must die here,” Father Qasboutros told Mr. Shadid a decade ago. “We can’t leave this country.”
An image of Francis is painted on the blast walls that now ring Our Lady of Salvation.
Pope Francis made it clear that after Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI had to scuttle plans to visit the remaining Christians in the country, he would not cancel his own trip.
On a bus going through the fourth of about 15 checkpoints they would pass through on their way to the Baghdad International Airport on Friday, Safa al-Abbia said that for him and other young Christians attending the arrival ceremony for Pope Francis in Iraq, it was hard to believe the visit was really happening.
It isn’t the first time Mr. Abbia, 29, will have seen the pope. Three years ago, as a leader of young Christians, he visited the Vatican.
“He said, ‘I promise you I will visit Iraq,’” said Mr. Abbia, a dentist. “At that time, I didn’t believe it. I thought it was impossible.”
About 1,000 Christians and twice as many Muslim Iraqis attended the airport ceremony. The road to the airport, adorned by Vatican and Iraqi flags, was lined with armored vehicles with SWAT teams in Iraq’s biggest security operation in years.
Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, is locked down for the pope’s three-day visit, with all but authorized vehicle traffic banned. Schools and government offices are closed.
Mr. Abbia said that with the pope’s visit, it felt as if Iraqi young people were being seen.
“Two years ago in Iraq, there was a revolution,” he said, using the word for the protest movement by young Iraqis that brought down the previous government before being crushed by security forces. “The first thing is to live in dignity, and the young people especially, they feel they don’t have the right to live in dignity in their country. So they are emigrating.”
Francis has expressed concern over the killings of unarmed protesters in Iraq and has frequently called for Iraqis and others to be able to live in dignity — including holding jobs and having access to public services.
Outside the airport, hundreds of the faithful lined the roads, holding flags and eager to wave as the pope passed by.
His drive to the presidential palace in Baghdad, about 20 minutes away, took him past the site of a U.S. drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani — an Iranian military leader — and a senior Iraqi security official a year ago.
The wreckage of one of the vehicles that was hit and the shrapnel-marked walls on the airport road have been preserved by Iraq’s government as a monument honoring the dead and in criticism of the attack.
“Iraq is not 100 percent secure, but the government is giving it special attention,” Mr. Abbia said of the pope’s visit. “All the world’s eyes are on us.”
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Since Peter’s journey to Rome, traditionally dated to 44 A.D., trips taken by popes — known as the Vicars of Christ — have played an integral role in shaping how the world sees the Roman Catholic Church.
They also reflect the way popes see their role in the world.
The modern era of the papal trip began in October 1962, when John XXIII boarded a train at the tiny Vatican rail station to visit the Holy House of Loreto and the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. It was the first time a pope had left Rome since 1857, according to historians, after Pius IX famously declared himself a “prisoner of the Vatican” in 1870 to protest the loss of the Papal States.
After more than a year cooped up behind the Vatican walls, Francis traveled to Baghdad on Friday at a tense time in the pandemic, sending a message that flies in the face of many public health guidelines.
In his weekly address on Wednesday, the pope said he would not be deterred.
“I ask that you accompany this apostolic trip with prayer so that it can occur in the best way possible, bear the hoped-for fruit,” he said. “The Iraqi people await us.”
Francis, who was vaccinated in mid-January, has urged wealthy countries to give vaccine doses to poorer ones, and called a refusal to vaccinate “suicidal.”
The pope’s entourage has also been inoculated.
The possibility that Francis, who is 84, might inadvertently endanger an Iraqi population with practically no access to vaccines is not lost on his allies back in Rome.
“There is this concern that the pope’s visit not put the people’s health at risk — this is evident,” said the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest and close ally of Francis. “There is an awareness of the problem.”
The Vatican insisted that the trip would be a safe, socially distanced and sober visit devoid of the usual fanfare. A Vatican spokesman also played down the number of cases in Iraq when reporters asked how Francis could justify not delaying the trip.
Supporters worry that the pope’s goals for the visit could be eclipsed by any indication that he is contributing to the spread of the coronavirus by staging events where social distancing is hard to enforce.
It is difficult to overstate the challenges for Iraq in hosting a visit by Pope Francis and his entourage in the midst of a pandemic and worries over possible attacks. Those challenges are perhaps matched only by the visit’s importance to Iraq’s international image.
The pope will crisscross the country by armored cars, planes and helicopters — each step carefully choreographed and secured in advance.
His first ride, from Baghdad’s airport to the presidential palace, took him past adoring crowds, but also the wreckage of a U.S. drone strike last year that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the powerful and shadowy spymaster at the head of Iran’s security machinery. The attack raised tensions between the United States and Iran in Iraq, a country caught in the middle. Just Wednesday, 10 rockets were fired at a military base in western Iraq that houses U.S. forces.
For Iraq, though, the absence of regular bombings is considered relative stability. And a successful visit by Francis is a chance to highlight to the world that Iraq isn’t all rocket attacks and suicide bombings.
The event is one of the country’s biggest peacetime security operations since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003. To ensure the pope’s safety, hundreds of thousands of security personnel are on streets that are essentially emptied of citizens.
The Iraqi government has imposed a curfew in cities where the pope is visiting and banned travel between provinces. While it blamed rising coronavirus cases, the curfews also help maintain security.
The pope was formally welcomed by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. After that airport ceremony, Francis will meet with Iraq’s head of state, President Barham Salih. Mr. Salih, a Kurd whom the pope has previously met in Rome, has made minority rights a priority.
The pope has not only focused on praying for victims of violence in Iraq. He has also condemned attacks by the country’s security forces on unarmed protesters and emphasized the necessity of dignity for all Iraqis — demanded by young Iraqis in their calls for jobs and public services.
Mr. Kadhimi has pledged to deliver those very things, but he oversees a government that is riddled with corruption and struggles to provide basic services.
To illustrate, the Iraqi government invited the international news media to watch the visit unfold, accrediting 300 foreign journalists in addition to the papal traveling press. On Friday morning, they were told that none would be allowed to attend the arrival ceremony because of organizational problems.
Francis has a busy schedule during the visit. He starts in Baghdad and is meeting with political officials, as is customary, before meeting with Catholic clergy and seminarians at Our Lady of Salvation, the Syrian Catholic church where an attack in 2010 killed more than 50 people.
On Saturday, he will fly to Najaf, the holiest city for Shiites in Iraq. There, he will meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a reclusive 90-year-old Muslim cleric who remains almost completely out of public life. The most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq, the ayatollah rarely meets with foreign dignitaries.
Another highlight of Francis’s day will be an interreligious meeting at the Plain of Ur, which tradition holds was the home of Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Francis will deliver a speech there and then return to Baghdad, where he will celebrate Mass at the Chaldean Church.
On Sunday, he is scheduled to fly to Erbil, in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has been the site of rocket attacks in recent days.
After meeting officials there, the pope will depart by helicopter for Mosul, a once religiously diverse city that has been laid to waste by war and by the Islamic State’s occupation of part of Iraq. Francis will deliver a prayer for war victims in the city’s Church Square.
He then travels to Qaraqosh, one of Iraq’s most vibrant Christian towns, whose community has been sharply eroded by violence and migration over the last decade. He will deliver a speech at a church and then return to Erbil, where he will celebrate an outdoor Mass at Franso Hariri soccer stadium.
He returns to Rome on Monday.
In 2015, when the Islamic State’s bloody rampage was on the rise, Eliza Griswold chronicled the decimation of the Christian community in the region for The New York Times Magazine. Below is an excerpt that offers historical perspective on Christianity in Iraq.
Most of Iraq’s Christians call themselves Assyrians, Chaldeans or Syriac, different names for a common ethnicity rooted in the Mesopotamian kingdoms that flourished between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers thousands of years before Jesus.
Christianity arrived during the first century, according to Eusebius, an early church historian who claimed to have translated letters between Jesus and a Mesopotamian king. Tradition holds that Thomas, one of the Twelve Apostles, sent Thaddeus, an early Jewish convert, to Mesopotamia to preach the Gospel.
As Christianity grew, it coexisted alongside older traditions — Judaism, Zoroastrianism and the monotheism of the Druze, Yazidis and Mandeans, among others — all of which survive in the region, though in vastly diminished form.
From Greece to Egypt, this was the eastern half of Christendom, a fractious community divided by doctrinal differences that persist today: various Catholic churches (those who look to Rome for guidance, and those who don’t); the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox (those who believe Jesus has two natures, human and divine, and those who believe he was solely divine); and the Assyrian Church of the East, which is neither Catholic nor Orthodox.
When the first Islamic armies arrived from the Arabian Peninsula during the seventh century, the Assyrian Church of the East was sending missionaries to China, India and Mongolia. The shift from Christianity to Islam happened gradually. Much as the worship of Eastern cults largely gave way to Christianity, Christianity gave way to Islam.
Under Islamic rule, Eastern Christians lived as protected people, dhimmi: They were subservient and had to pay the jizya, but were often allowed to observe practices forbidden by Islam, including eating pork and drinking alcohol. Muslim rulers tended to be more tolerant of minorities than their Christian counterparts, and for 1,500 years, different religions thrived side by side.
One hundred years ago, the fall of the Ottoman Empire and World War I ushered in the greatest period of violence against Christians in the region. The genocide waged by the Young Turks in the name of nationalism, not religion, left at least two million Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks dead. Nearly all were Christian.
Among those who survived, many of the better educated left for the West. Others settled in Iraq and Syria, where they were protected by the military dictators who courted these often economically powerful minorities.
From 1910 to 2010, the percentage of the Middle Eastern population that was Christian — in countries like Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Jordan — continued to decline.
For more than a decade, extremists have targeted Christians and other minorities, who often serve as stand-ins for the West. This was especially true in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, which caused hundreds of thousands to flee.
With the fall of Saddam Hussein, Christians began to leave Iraq in large numbers, and the population shrank to less than 500,000 today from as many as 1.5 million in 2003.