Pope Francis will fly to Iraq on Friday for the first ever papal visit to the country and his first international trip since the start of the pandemic.
The four-day trip is meant to reassure Iraq’s dwindling Christian community and foster inter-religious dialogue.
The Pope will meet Iraq’s most revered Shia Muslim cleric, say a prayer in Mosul and celebrate Mass at a stadium.
He has insisted on travelling despite a new spike in Covid-19 infections in Iraq and concerns over his security.
Hours after a rocket attack on a base hosting US troops on Wednesday, the Pope said Iraqi Christians could not be “let down for a second time”.
A civil defence worker disinfects the Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad (30 December 2021)
Pope John Paul II cancelled plans for a trip at the end of 1999 after talks with then-President Saddam Hussein’s government broke down.
In the two decades since then, one of the world’s oldest Christian communities has seen its numbers plummet from 1.4 million to about 250,000.
Many have fled abroad to escape the religiously motivated violence that has plagued the country since the US-led invasion in 2003 that ousted Saddam.
Tens of thousands were also displaced when Islamic State (IS) militants 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.
The head of the Roman Catholic Church aims to embolden persecuted Christians and call for peace in meetings with political and other religious leaders, reports the BBC’s Mark Lowen, who is travelling with him.
Addressing the Iraqi people in a video message on the eve of his trip, Pope Francis said he was “coming as a pilgrim, as a penitent pilgrim, to implore from the Lord forgiveness and reconciliation after years of war and terrorism, to beg from God the consolation of hearts and the healing of wounds”.
He continued: “I am coming among you also as a pilgrim of peace… seeking fraternity and prompted by the desire to pray together and to walk together, also with our brothers and sisters of other religious traditions, in the steps of Father Abraham, who joins in one family Muslims, Jews and Christians.”
The Pope told Iraqi Christians: “I want to bring you the affectionate caress of the whole Church, which is close to you and to the war-torn Middle East, and encourages you to keep moving forward.”
Due to security concerns and a sharp rise in Covid-19 infections, the 84-year-old pope will have limited exposure to the public, our correspondent says. But there are still fears that the trip could become a super-spreader event.
Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in Baghdad on Friday afternoon.
He will be welcomed by Iraq’s prime minister and president before meeting bishops and other clergy at a Syriac Catholic church in the capital, Our Lady of Salvation, where 52 Christians and police were killed in an attack by jihadists from a precursor group to IS in 2010.
On Saturday, the pope will fly south to the Shia holy city of Najaf, where he will visit Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The 90-year-old is the prime marja, or spiritual reference, for millions of Shia in Iraq and elsewhere.
Pope Francis will then attend an interreligious meeting at the ancient site of Ur, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham.
Sunday will see him travel to the northern city of Mosul. He will say a prayer of suffrage in Church Square for the victims of the war with IS, which left tens of thousands of civilians dead.
The Pope will also visit nearby Qaraqosh, where Christians have returned since the defeat of IS in 2017 to restore the town’s church and rebuild their homes.
That afternoon, he will celebrate Mass at a stadium in Irbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region, which thousands of people may attend.
About 10,000 Iraqi Security Forces personnel will be deployed during the visit to protect the Pope, while round-the-clock curfews are also being imposed to limit the spread of Covid-19.