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Why is Pope Francis visiting Iraq, one of the World’s oldest Christian communities?
Iraq’s president, Barham Salih, invited Francis to visit in July 2019
Pope Francis began a three-day whirlwind tour of Iraq on Friday, despite worries that he could draw large crowds at a moment when the coronavirus appears to be resurgent in the country.
Continuing security concerns in a nation ravaged by years of war and conflict were also not enough to deter Pope Francis from fulfilling a promise to visit one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.
However, such a visit had been the dream of several popes. John Paul II intended to go in 2000, but the trip was canceled as tensions in the region mounted. Benedict XVI was also invited but couldn’t go because of the war.
Iraq’s president, Barham Salih, invited Francis to visit in July 2019, hoping it would help the country heal after years of strife.
Francis accepted the invitation and has made it clear that he does not want to disappoint the Iraqi people, especially the country’s suffering Christian population. The Vatican believes the risks are outweighed by the chance to support and be close to them — one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.
Some church officials believe the Christian faith is in danger of disappearing from Iraq. Its ranks have been dwindling for years — cut to roughly a third of the 1.5 million who lived there during the final years of Saddam Hussein’s rule.
After more than a year cooped up behind the Vatican walls, Francis is to travel to Baghdad on Friday at a tense time in the pandemic, sending a message that flies in the face of many public health guidelines.
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.