Hope and calls for help on first day of papal visit
The first day of Pope’s Francis visit to Iraq saw much talk of peace and coexistence, but also calls for the religious leader to prompt authorities into action as demonstrations continued across the south.
Pope Francis, 84, arrived in Baghdad at 2pm local time, welcomed by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and gifted flowers by young children in traditional dress, walking along a red carpet to Iraqi traditional music and dancers.
The pontiff then travelled to meet with Iraqi officials, including President Barham Salih, before ending the day at the capital’s Syriac Our Lady of Salvation Church, the site of a bloody massacre in 2010 in which 52 worshippers were killed by Islamic extremists.
On the same day, protests broke out in Diwaniyah and Babylon in the south of the country, with demonstrators calling for the dismissal of governors they say are corrupt and ineffective.
This is the first papal visit to Iraq.
The pope has come to the country “as a pilgrim” to encourage Iraq’s Catholics “in their witness of faith, hope and love in the midst of Iraqi society,” he said in Baghdad.
President Salih hailed the role Pope Francis has in peace and dialogue in a speech made after welcoming the pope in Baghdad.
“The Middle East is facing a crisis of coexistence and acceptance of others due to tensions and terrorism, which threatens everyone’s future,” Salih said. “The Pope’s role in the call for peace and the emphasis on dialogue is cherished.”
More than one million Christians lived in Iraq before the US invasion in 2003, according to Erbil’s Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda. After years of exodus and migration, less than 300,000 remain.
Speaking at the presidential palace, Pope Francis paid tribute to Iraq’s ancient Christian community, and called for their full rights alongside other Iraqis.
“The age-old presence of Christians in this land, and their contributions to the life of the nation, constitute a rich heritage that they wish to continue to place at the service of all. Their participation in public life, as citizens with full rights, freedoms and responsibilities, will testify that a healthy pluralism of religious beliefs, ethnicities and cultures can contribute to the nation’s prosperity and harmony.”
“Iraq today is called to show everyone, especially in the Middle East, that diversity, instead of giving rise to conflict, should lead to harmonious cooperation in the life of society,” he added.
The pope also drew attention to the plight of other minorities, including the Yazidis, who he described as “innocent victims of senseless and brutal atrocities…whose very identity and survival was put at risk.”
Hashtags including “Save Us” and “Look at the Oppressed People” trended on Twitter on Friday. Before his arrival in Iraq, young Iraqis on social media appealed to the pontiff to see the reality of life in their country: “Come to the hospitals, maybe that way they will be cleaned.”
Iraq is facing an ongoing economic crisis and a worsening coronavirus outbreak, with more than 5,000 new cases recorded on Friday, in addition to regular rocket attacks on bases across the country, and the killing of protesters and activists.
In his address, the pope had a clear message: for the violence to end.
“May the clash of arms be silenced. May their spread be curbed, here and everywhere. May there be an end to acts of violence and extremism, factions and intolerance,” he said.
At the city’s Our Lady of Salvation Church, the pope was greeted by Iraqi civilians, who welcomed him with flower garlands and scarves. There, he paid tribute to worshippers killed at the church in 2010.
“I urge that the memory of their sacrifice encourages us to renew our trust in the power of the cross and its everlasting message of peace and rebirth. Their deaths remind us that extremism, bloodshed, and violence do not go with our religious ways.
On Saturday, the Pope will his much-awaited trip to Najaf, where he will meet Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s highest Shiite authority, who rarely receives visitors. From Najaf he will travel to the Plain of Ur in Dhi Qar province, where he is expected to meet with leader of different faiths, before returning to hold mass at Baghdad’s St Joseph’s Chaldean Church.
On Sunday, the pontiff will head north to visit Mosul, the Nineveh town of Qaraqosh, and Erbil, where he will hold Mass at the city’s Franso Hariri stadium for 3,000 people. He will then return to Baghdad before leaving for Rome.