As head of one of Christianity’s oldest congregations, Cardinal Louis Sako of Iraq has in recent years seen his flock dwindle and scatter as the country has been torn apart by an occupation, insurgencies and civil war.
This weekend’s visit by Pope Francis, the first papal visit to a Middle Eastern country devastated by sectarian violence since the US-led invasion in 2003, has been hailed by Sako as a chance to celebrate Iraq’s rich religious diversity and to underline the importance of tolerance.
“Inside the Pope’s heart, I feel there’s a sort of a call to come to a region that’s in flames,” said Sako, speaking as Iraqis smarten up churches, archaeological sites and even a stadium, all locations where Francis will deliver a rare message of hope.
But the trip, the first by a head of state to Iraq for years and the Pope’s first overseas trip during the pandemic, has also sparked concern about security and the spread of coronavirus in a country that this week saw caseloads hit a record high.
Over three days, the pontiff will travel the length of Iraq, from the historic birthplace of Abraham, revered in monotheistic religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in the south, to the northern Ninewa plains, meeting representatives from Iraq’s many religious sects and ethnic groups.
The Pope will visit the ruined city of Mosul, where Isis’s leader declared its self-proclaimed caliphate and its fighters ruled with medieval brutality. He will also lead mass in a Baghdad cathedral near a church where terrorists gunned down worshippers in 2010, and in a stadium in the Kurdistan Region’s capital Erbil, which became a safe haven for Christians fleeing Isis’s blitzkrieg across north Iraq’s diverse communities in 2014.
While there is no open conflict, Iraq remains tense. This week alone, 10 rockets exploded in an Iraqi air base housing US troops. The attack has not been claimed, but follows a serious of assaults by Iran-backed Iraqi militants on facilities housing US personnel.
A Vatican official said that the Pope’s security is the host country’s responsibility, although it is possible, the official added, that more Papal security guards will travel than usual. Iraq has provided few details, but wire reports suggest as many as 10,000 soldiers will be mobilised. Travel will be by helicopter and a closed car, which the Vatican said would probably be more heavily armoured than the regular Pope-mobile.
Although the Pope has had two shots of the BioNTech/Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine, and his entourage will have been vaccinated, health experts fear the impact of large crowds on efforts to contain the pandemic. Dr Navid Madani, a virologist, told AP that the welcome for Pope Francis “could potentially lead to unsafe or superspreading risks”. Iraq’s coronavirus caseload hit a record high of 5,173 two days before the trip.
For the Vatican, the trip furthers the Pope’s efforts to strengthen relations with the Muslim world, extending his message of encouraging “fraternity and social friendship” outlined in his 2020 “Brothers All” encyclical.
People of all faiths have endured devastating sectarian violence following the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Then the country was torn apart by Islamist extremists Isis who especially targeted the Yazidi religious minority in what the UN has classified as a genocide. Christians also suffered in Isis’s rampage through their northern homelands.
“After the liberation of our areas [from Isis], the government didn’t participate in the rebuilding to earn people’s trust,” said Father Majeed Hazem Atallah, secretary of the Syriac Catholic Archdiocese of Mosul and its affiliates. “The church rebuilt the houses.”
Christians now number 500,000 in Iraq, a third of what they once were, and a fraction of the 40m population. Some see the visit as an encouragement to Iraq’s Christian denominations not to give up on their homeland.
The visit also demonstrates that Iraq is “part of the moderate international community that is combating extremism, combating intolerance”, said Abbas Kadhim, director of the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative. Iraq is “trying to emancipate itself from this hideous struggle between the US and Iran”, said Maria Fantappie, an Italian special adviser for MENA at the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue. The Vatican’s outreach comes at a time Iraq “desperately needs multilateralism”, she added.
The trip’s highlight may be the pontiff’s meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, “the closest Shia Islam has to a Pope,” according to Hayder al-Khoie, director of foreign relations at the al-Khoei Institute. The hermetic Sistani, 90, almost never leaves his simple home in Iraq’s religious capital, Najaf, Khoie said. “They’re both champions of dialogue, they both stress the need for social cohesion, condemning violence in the name of religion,” said Khoie.
For many Iraqis, the sudden rush of road-fixing along the Pope’s route is a sharp contrast with general neglect. Nor is everyone optimistic that a papal visit can heal divisions. But Cardinal Sako said he was hopeful that the Pope’s message of tolerance could be translated into a “reality of goodness”. “Otherwise, we will remain miserable and we will tear each other down and destroy this country that is a cradle of Akkadian and Sumerian and Islamic and Christian civilisations, and then what’s the result?” said Sako. “Nothing.”