Pope Francis to conclude three-day historic visit to Iraq; urges for an end to violence

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Pope Francis of Rome will conclude a three-day historic visit to Iraq, the birthplace of the Abrahamic religions. Defying the Covid-19 pandemic, surging security threats and the protracted political turmoil in the region, Pope landed in Baghdad on Friday, March 5th, beginning the first-ever papal visit to Iraq. The Pope met with the dwindling and persecuted Christian communities of Iraq, prayed for the “victims of war” and visited Najaf to meet with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme Shia leader in Iraq. On the final day of his visit, Francis visited the northern city of Mosul and prayed in the church that was destroyed by ISIL extremists a few years ago.

The supreme Roman pontiff made the visit at a time when the coronavirus is still raging across the globe and the global figures are staying put. The trip was aimed at playing a role in the reconstruction of the country ravaged by years of war with the Islamic State, the group that once fostered the ambition to “conquer Rome.”

Speaking aboard the plane to Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, Pope Francis called the trip “emblematic” and said that he felt duty-bonded to visit the nation that has been “martyred for so many years.” The Vatican as well as the Iraqi officials said that the necessary precautions were taken to limit any chances of the Covid-19 transmissions. Thousands of people nonetheless lined on the roads – partially masked – to get a glimpse of the Pope.

The Pontiff’s plane touched down in Baghdad on Friday where he was greeted by the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhem and subsequently escorted by a highly-trained security entourage to Iraq’s presidential palace. In his first remarks of the trip, the Pontiff provided a view of his hopes for a society trying to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.

“In this regard, the religious, cultural and ethnic diversity that has been a hallmark of Iraqi society for millennia is a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to be eliminated,” the Pope said, hinting at the sectarian conflicts that have plagued Iraq for years.

Later in the day, the Pope visited the Our Lady of Salvation Church, the site of a 2010 attack by affiliates of al-Qaeda, and spoke to the bishops and other religious figures. Violence is “incompatible with authentic religious teachings”, Francis said during the visit.

The most important moment of the Pontiff’s visit came on Saturday when he visited the city of Najaf and met with the Iraqi Shitte leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The 90-year old cleric has not left his home for years, so Francis came to his home to pay the visit. The two of the most supreme faith leaders in the world reached across the religious bridge to promote the message of peace and unity.

The Pope conversed with al-Sistani for an hour where Francis thanked the latter for having “raised his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted” during one of the most violent times in Iraq’s history. Al-Sistani, dressed in black, “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights.”

The Pope then visited the ruins of the ancient city of Ur, traditionally held to be the birthplace of Abraham, the common patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Pope made a plea for “unity” in the war-beaten Iraq on the occasion. With the magnificent ziggurat nearby, the Pope told the religious leaders that they come together in the ancient city of Ur – “back to our origins, to the sources of God’s work, to the birth of our religions” – and pray together for peace as the children of Abraham.

He then flew back to Baghdad where he honored Iraq’s persecuted Christian Community by celebrating Mass at the Chaldean Catholic cathedral. Delivering a sermon at the occasion, the Pope said: “Love is our strength, the source of strength for those of our brothers and sisters who here too have suffered prejudice, indignities, mistreatment and persecutions for the name of Jesus.”

On the third and final day of his visit, the Roman pontiff flew to the city of Erbil in northern Iraq to pay a visit to the cathedrals destroyed by the ISIL jihadists. He was greeted at the airport by the leaders of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. He then headed to the city of Mosul to pray for the victims of Iraq’s sectarian conflicts.

The Pope then returned to the Erbil stadium to hold a Mass which drew as many as 10,000 people.

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