In early March, Pope Francis embarked on a four-day trip to Iraq, where he met with political and religious rulers to encourage better Christian-Muslim relations. According to the official Vatican itinerary, titled Apostolic Journey of His Holiness Pope Francis to Iraq, the Pope arrived in Baghdad on March 5, where he was met by the Prime Minister and later that day visited the Iraqi President. He concluded his trip in Erbil, where he led mass in front of a large crowd. He preached words of encouragement to Christians living in Iraq, pointing to a better future in which they can restore the communities that were ravaged by ISIS militants years ago when they seized control of the region.
Many Iraqi citizens viewed the Pope’s visit as extremely meaningful. In an interview with NPR, Iraqi man Saasane Hasan described the Pope as a beacon of light. He said that he never would have imagined that Pope Francis would visit his country, and he expressed admiration at the Pope’s bravery to come to the country despite safety concerns that turn many others away.
On March 7, the Pope prayed in Mosul on top of church ruins destroyed by ISIS. ISIS took control of the region in 2014, and Christians were among those who were displaced and persecuted in numbers, according to BBC News. The Pope prayed for the victims of ISIS and the war with ISIS. CBS News states that the Pope condemned ISIS terrorism while simultaneously calling for forgiveness.
BBC News continues that there have been complaints by Christian Iraqis of discrimination and harassment. The number of Christians in Iraq has rapidly decreased from 1.4 million two decades ago to 250,000 now. Throughout the Pope’s visit, he called for violence and extremism to be eradicated and for Iraq’s Christians to be afforded full rights and liberties. Appealing for religious coexistence, Pope Francis also met with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, reports The Washington Post.
Occurring against the background of the pandemic, the Pope’s arrival in Iraq caused many to worry that crowds would cause a new wave of cases. NPR describes masses that the Pope held with little social distancing, despite plans made by the Vatican and local organizers to make sure there were always masks and proper social distancing. NPR reports that the Pope and his travel entourage did get vaccinated before arriving in Iraq. This was the Pope’s first time leaving the Vatican in 15 months due to COVID-19 restrictions. The Pope said he felt like he was, “in prison,” due to not being able to leave the Vatican for so long.
NPR quotes United States President Joe Biden on his thoughts of the Pope’s visit, saying “To see Pope Francis visit ancient religious sites, including the biblical birthplace of Abraham, spend time with grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani … and offer prayers in Mosul … is a symbol of hope for the entire world.” Supporters of the Pope’s visit see it as inspirational, stressing the importance of peace among religious nations and expressing encouragement at the Pope’s actions in attempt to encourage such peace. Critics, however, see the Pope’s attempt to heal Christian-Muslim relations as an artificial publicity stunt.
The Pope visiting a country which has had so much history with Christians and Muslims, especially during a pandemic, is a momentous event. According to The New York Times, Iraqi officials saw the visit as an affirmation of the country’s importance in the region. Perhaps a call for peace is what the world needs today.