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Pope Francis, defies safety fears, heads to Iraq for ‘historic’ journey

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Pope Francis boards a airplane as he departs to Iraq on March 5, 2021 at Rome’s Fiumicino airport. Picture: AFP 
  • Safety shall be tight in Iraq, which has endured years of warfare and insurgency, and remains to be trying to find Islamic State sleeper cells
  • Pope Francis will preside over a half-dozen providers in ravaged church buildings, refurbished stadiums and distant desert areas
  • Pope will even attain out to Shia Muslims when he meets Iraq’s prime cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani

BAGHDAD: Head of the Catholic church Pope Francis on Friday left Rome to embark on a ‘historic journey’ to war-battered Iraq to fulfill one of many world’s oldest and most persecuted Christian communities.

The 84-year-old, who mentioned he was making the first-ever papal go to to Iraq as a “pilgrim of peace,” will even attain out to Shia Muslims when he meets Iraq’s prime cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

The pope left Rome early Friday for the four-day journey, his first overseas for the reason that onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which left the chief of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics saying he felt “caged” contained in the Vatican.

Whereas Francis has been vaccinated, Iraq has been gripped by a second wave with a document of over 5,000 new instances a day, prompting authorities to impose full lockdowns through the pontiff’s go to.

Learn extra: Pope Francis to make first-ever papal go to to Iraq on Friday

Safety shall be tight in Iraq, which has endured years of warfare and insurgency, remains to be trying to find Islamic State sleeper cells, and days in the past noticed a barrage of rockets plough right into a army base.

Francis will preside over a half-dozen providers in ravaged church buildings, refurbished stadiums and distant desert areas, the place attendance shall be restricted to permit for social distancing.

Contained in the nation, he’ll journey greater than 1,400 kilometres (870 miles) by airplane and helicopter, flying over areas the place safety forces are nonetheless battling IS remnants.

For shorter journeys, Francis will take an armoured automotive on freshly paved roads that shall be lined with flowers and posters welcoming the chief identified right here as “Baba Al-Vatican”.

Learn extra: One killed as rockets hit Iraq army base internet hosting US troops

The pope’s go to has deeply touched Iraq’s Christians, whose numbers have collapsed over years of persecution and sectarian violence, from 1.5 million in 2003 to fewer than 400,000 immediately.

“We’re hoping the pope will explain to the government that it needs to help its people,” a Christian from Iraq’s north, Saad al-Rassam, instructed AFP. “We have suffered so much, we need the support.”

‘Too many martyrs’

The primary day of the pope’s bold itinerary will see him meet authorities officers and clerics within the capital Baghdad, together with on the Our Woman of Salvation church, the place a militant assault left dozens useless in 2010.

He will even go to the northern province of Nineveh, the place in 2014 IS militants compelled minorities to both flee, convert to Islam or be put to dying.

“People had only a few minutes to decide if they wanted to leave or be decapitated,” recalled Karam Qacha, a Chaldean Catholic priest in Nineveh.

“We left everything — except our faith.”

Some 100,000 Christians — round half of those that lived within the province — fled, of whom simply 36,000 have returned, in response to Catholic charity “Aid to the Church in Need”.

Learn extra: Pope Francis wears a face masks for the primary time in public

Among the many returnees, a 3rd have mentioned they need to depart once more in coming years, dismayed by Iraq’s rampant corruption, persecution and poverty, which now impacts 40% of the inhabitants.

The exodus is a loss for all of Iraq, mentioned Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for the Oriental Church buildings and can accompany the pope to Iraq.

“A Middle East without Christians is like trying to make bread with flour, but no yeast or salt,” he mentioned.

The go to goals not solely to encourage Christians to remain of their homeland, however even immediate some emigres to return from close by Lebanon and Jordan, or additional afield like Canada and Australia.

In a video deal with forward of the journey, Francis evoked “the wounds of loved ones left behind and homes abandoned,” saying there had been “too many martyrs” in Iraq.

Learn extra: In Easter message, Pope Francis urges individuals to not ‘yield to concern’

“I come as a pilgrim, a penitent pilgrim to implore forgiveness and reconciliation from the Lord after years of war and terrorism.”

‘Minarets and church bells’

The pope has insisted on the go to regardless of resurging violence.

Rocket assaults throughout the nation have left three individuals useless in current weeks, together with a US contractor who died Wednesday.

Francis’ willpower to journey to areas lengthy shunned by international dignitaries has impressed many in Iraq — as has his deliberate assembly with Sistani, 90, the highest authority for Iraq’s Shias.

A extremely reclusive determine who hardly ever accepts guests, Sistani will make an exception to host Francis at his humble dwelling within the shrine metropolis of Najaf on Saturday.

Banners throughout Najaf have celebrated “the historic encounter, between the minarets and the church bells”.

Learn extra: Pope Francis makes historical past with Muslim dialogue in UAE

Francis, a significant supporter of inter-religious dialogue, will afterwards head to the desert website of Ur, the place Abraham is believed to have been born.

There, he’ll host an interfaith service that can convey collectively not solely the Abrahamic religions but additionally embody followers of different beliefs, together with Yazidis and Sabeans.

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