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Pope to have local protection on historic Iraq visit

Iraqis will handle security for Pope Francis’ much-anticipated visit to Iraq in March, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, noting that the decision was made at the request of the Vatican.

“The Vatican would like the Pope to come via an Iraqi plane with the provision of Iraqi protection,” Senior Undersecretary of the Ministry Nizar Al-Khair Allah told state media, noting that the Pope’s main speech will be delivered from the historical city of Ur, at the shrine of the Prophet Abraham.

Pope Francis is to meet top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani during the first-ever papal visit to Iraq in March, a senior Catholic cleric told AFP in January.

Louis Sako, patriarch of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church, said it would be a “private visit” between the two religious figures at Sistani’s residence in the shrine city of Najaf, “without formalities.”

Sistani, 90, is never seen in public and rarely accepts visitors. The confirmation of the bilateral meeting came weeks after other parts of the Pope’s visit were set.

“The Pope’s visit to Najaf will be historic and has not been witnessed in the history of the Hawza, but it won’t include any signings or agreements,” Khair Allah added.

The Hawza of Najaf is considered the greatest and most magnificent seminary in Najaf.

The pope’s visit comes at a time when only a few hundred thousand Christians are left in the country.

Only 400,000 are estimated to remain in the country, down from 1.5 million in 2003.

Several waves of violence since the US-led invasion, including Islamic State (ISIS) brutality have led many from the religious minority to flee the country. Others have moved for economic reasons.