Pope Francis’ Historic Visit to Iraq: a Symbol of Reconciliation and Peace in Uncertain Times
By Rouaa Alamin
The highly anticipated visit of Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church, began on the 5th March 2021, when he arrived in Baghdad for the first ever Papal visit to Iraq, amidst joyous anticipation of millions of Iraqis, regardless of religious affiliation.
Following the official reception by the President of Iraq, Barham Salih, the Pope visited the Sayidat Al-Nejat Cathedral of the Syriac Catholic Church. The Cathedral is the largest church in Baghdad and was the site of a suicide bombing by the Islamic State of Iraq in 2010, where roughly 65-70 people were killed.
On the second day of his trip, the Pope travelled to the city of Najaf, where he held an historic meeting with the Shia Muslim Cleric Ali Al-Sistani. Their meeting was highly revered and commended by the Iraqi population as a sign of the head of the Catholic Church’s commitment to denouncing religious extremism and his call for friendship and neighbourliness among different religious groups.
From Najaf, Pope Francis flew to Nasiriya to visit the ancient city of Ur, which is believed to be the birthplace of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim patriarch Abraham. There he was joined by Christian, Muslim, Mandai, and Yazidi clerics in an interreligious prayer. Subsequently, he returned to Baghdad to celebrate mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of Saint Joseph.
The third day was dedicated to visiting the city of Mosul, which has the largest Christian population in Iraq, and was a city that became infamous when the Islamic State of Iraq seized control of it in 2014, and the brutal conflict during the Battle of Mosul three years later, when the city was recaptured by the Iraqi government. Among the rubble of the churches destroyed by ISIS in the old city of Mosul, Pope Francis declared hope to be ‘more powerful than hatred, and peace more powerful than war’. The Pope’s visit to Mosul was immediately followed by a visit to the city of Qaraqosh, which is the largest Christian city in Iraq. His speech at the Church of Immaculate Conception was witnessed by large groups of people who received him warmly despite the national curfew due to rising Covid-19 cases. For many people living in a city ravaged by war, his visit was a glimmer of hope.
Finally, on Sunday 7th March, Pope Francis held a mass at the Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil with almost 20,000 worshippers present, while millions watched from their homes to witness this historic event, which was albeit overshadowed by security concerns as well as safety concerns due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, despite criticism of this high-level trip due to rising numbers of Covid-19 cases in Iraq, both the Vatican and Iraqi political and religious leaders emphasised the importance of the trip in strengthening interreligious dialogue and conflict resolution in what the Pope called ‘the home of the oldest Christian community in the world’.