By Michael Morano
International News Writer
Pope Francis has made history by becoming the first pope to visit Iraq, despite the country’s political problems and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
The 84-year-old pontiff insisted on visiting the Middle Eastern country, saying that he felt “duty-bound” to make an “emblematic” trip. His main goal of the visit was not only to acknowledge the Christian population of Iraq, but to also appeal to the country’s leaders to put an end to militant and religious violence and strife. “May the clash of arms be silenced…may there be an end to acts of violence and extremism,” he said. Barham Salih, the president of Iraq, greeted and thanked Francis for making the decision to travel to the country despite all that has happened in, “our wounded country.”
The pontiff made a few notable visits in the country, one of which being a stop at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, where in 2010, at least 58 people were killed by an Al Qaeda affiliate. The pope also held a meeting with Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and
also paid a visit to the city of Ur, the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, an important figure in the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic faiths.
This was the pope’s first international trip since the start of the pandemic last year, and there were some concerns about this. While Francis and his accompanying Vatican officials had all been vaccinated prior to the trip, the people of Iraq are still waiting for more access to the vaccines. Concerns had been raised over the crowds that would gather to see Francis which would increase the risk of coronavirus transmissions in the country, which had recently seen a spike in cases. However, this did not stop the Iraqi people from getting a chance to see the head of the Catholic church in their country, with crowds lining roads to hopefully catch a glimpse of the pontiff.
The Christian population of Iraq, while one of the oldest in the world, has seen a massive decline due to the actions of the Islamic State, with numbers plummeting from 1.5 million to just 300,000 over the past 20 years. For the Iraqi Christians that remain, this visit means a lot. “The pope coming here is a huge sign of respect from, of course, the leader of the Catholic Church,” said Davide Bernocchi, the Iraqi country representative for the Catholic Relief Services. “It’s a chance for this country to feel that they are not forgotten.” Francis concluded his visit with a mass in a stadium in the city of Erbil.
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