Iraq prepares to receive the Pope amid COVID, rockets and demonstrations

Pope flies to Iraq on Friday to rescue Christians and seal pact with Shia Muslims
Pancarta de bienvenida al Papa Francisco, colgada en la pared de la iglesia católica caldea de San José, en la capital Bagdad, el 26 de febrero de 2021 AFP/ AHMAD AL-RUBAYE

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE  -   A banner welcoming Pope Francis hangs on the wall of St Joseph's Chaldean Catholic Church in the capital Baghdad on 26 February 2021.

Second wave of COVID-19, new confinement, rocket fire and ruined infrastructure. In Iraq, the Pope's visit is a historic event, but also a logistical headache.

Pope Francis is travelling to Iraq, the first trip by a pontiff to that country and the eleventh to a Muslim nation, a visit as part of his work to build bridges with Islam; a short trip of just four days that will resume the Catholic Church leader's international agency after more than a year of confinement due to the pandemic. 

Numerous Vatican security teams have been deployed to Iraq, a scene of intense geopolitical tensions, to organise security. Provincial commissions have been tasked with securing the Pope's circuit.

Un mural del Papa Francisco se ve en la pared de una iglesia en su próxima visita a Irak, en Bagdad, Irak AFP/ AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
AFP/ AHMAD AL-RUBAYE-A mural of Pope Francis is seen on a church wall during his upcoming visit to Iraq, in Baghdad, Iraq.

On Friday morning, the papal plane will land in Baghdad with about 150 people on board, half of them journalists.

The Pope will once again reach out to Islam in this country, one of the cradles of Christianity bled dry by wars and still marked by the irruption of the jihadist group Daesh; Pope Francis will meet - and this is also a first in itself - with the highest religious authority in part of the Shiite world, Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf, south of Baghdad.

The visit to Najaf, the holy city for Shiites, will take place on 6 March and the meeting with Al-Sistani will be private, as the press travelling with Francis will not accompany him.

Fieles cristianos asisten a un servicio de oración del sábado en la Iglesia Católica Siríaca de la Inmaculada Concepción (al-Tahira-l-Kubra), en la ciudad iraquí de Qaraqosh, AFP/ZAID AL-OBEIDI
AFP/ZAID AL-OBEIDI -Christian faithful attend a Saturday prayer service at the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception (al-Tahira-l-Kubra) in the Iraqi city of Qaraqosh.

In addition to being an important pillar in relations between the two faiths, strengthened by Francis' trips and meetings, the meeting with Al-Sistani will help to rebuild trust between Muslims and Christians in Iraq, which was shattered after the invasion of Daesh terrorists in 2014.

Although the Shia leader does not receive heads of state, not meeting Francis, on the first visit by a pontiff to Iraq, would have had a very negative impact on relations with the Shia, a majority in Iraq and also in Iran.

In Baghdad, the Arab world's second most populous capital with some 10 million inhabitants, the excitement is still palpable. Church bells are polished, politicians' posters are removed and replaced by messages of welcome to the Argentine pontiff.

: Distribución geográfica de los cristianos en determinados países de Oriente Medio y porcentaje de la población de cada país que representan en la región AFP/AFP
AFP/AFP-Geographical distribution of Christians in selected Middle Eastern countries and their share of the population of each country in the region

But the general euphoria and preparations are hard to forget in an explosive context and a trip with overflowing ambitions. It is not the first time a pope has longed to visit Iraq. John Paul II intended to go as part of his pilgrimage to the cradle of faith in 2000, but security problems and Saddam Hussein cut short at the last moment John Paul's hopes of going there on pilgrimage.

Nineteen years later, the patriarch of the Chaldean Church in Iraq, Louis Sako, obtained an official invitation from Iraqi President Barham Saleh for the Pope to come and 'heal' the country from violence.

Vista de la ciudad cristiana de Qaraqosh, Irak PHOTO/REUTERS
PHOTO/REUTERS-View of the Christian city of Qaraqosh, Iraq

COVID-19 delayed the trip, but neither the confinement imposed for the duration of the visit due to a contamination spike, nor the announcement that the Vatican's ambassador to Baghdad tested positive for coronavirus changed the programme. Except that the Pope will be deprived of a walk.

In three days, Pope Francis is scheduled to travel more than 1,445 kilometres by air, which means concretely, in a country like Iraq, that his helicopter or plane will sometimes fly over areas where Daesh jihadists are still hiding.

During his three-day visit, the 84-year-old Argentine pope will visit a diverse but shrinking Christian minority amid a population of 40 million Iraqis struggling with 40 years of war and economic crisis.

The papal programme is as ambitious as this trip is historic: until Monday he will visit a cathedral torn apart by a 2010 hostage-taking in Baghdad, the city of Ur, the southern desert, Najaf and churches ravaged by Islamic State in Mosul (north).

Cartel que muestra al Papa Francisco y al Gran Ayatolá Ali al-Sistani, con un texto en árabe que dice: "Ustedes son parte de nosotros y nosotros somos parte de ustedes” AP/KHALID MOHAMMED
AP/KHALID MOHAMMED-Poster showing Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, with Arabic text that reads: "You are part of us and we are part of you".

As for the famous "popemobile", the half-open car in which the Pope can ride behind bulletproof windows, a priori, it will not be part of the trip.

Everywhere along the way, messages of welcome and appeals for coexistence have been posted. Roads have been paved, security barriers have been installed and renovation work has been carried out in areas that have never been on the programme of official visits before.

Iraq's Christian community is one of the oldest and one of the most diverse, including Chaldean Catholic, Armenian Orthodox and Protestant communities.

: Folletos del Papa Francisco en una tienda de Arbil, la capital de la región autónoma kurda del norte de Irak AFP/ SAFIN HAMED
AFP/ SAFIN HAMED -Pope Francis leaflets in a shop in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq.

Under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship (1979-2003), Christians numbered around 1.5 million, 6% of Iraqis. Today, with a maximum of 400,000 members, they represent only 1 per cent of the population, according to William Warda of Hammurabi, a local minority advocacy NGO.

Before the exile, most Christians were in Nineveh province, whose capital is Mosul. There, shop windows and prayer books appear in modern Aramaic. In the province of Zi Qar, where the Pope will visit on Saturday the ancient Ur, where according to tradition the patriarch Abraham was born.

Un miembro de las fuerzas iraquíes junto a un cartel con la imagen del Papa Francisco en la iglesia católica siríaca de Nuestra Señora de la Liberación en el distrito de Karrada AFP/SABAN ARAR
AFP/SABAN ARAR-A member of the Iraqi forces next to a poster with the image of Pope Francis at the Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Deliverance in the Karrada district.

It is in this same province of Zi Qar that the inhabitants, who led the "October Revolution" against the government in 2019, have resumed their demonstrations in recent weeks. Six protesters have been killed and people's anger was at its peak before the visit of the Pope, who in the past had condemned the repression of the revolt.

After Ur, the Pope will address the world from Mosul, a symbol of Islamic State atrocities between 2014 and 2017, and head to Qaraqoch, a Christian city further south, where nuns perched on church rooftops are repainting crosses to welcome the Pontiff.

But the game is worth the candle. "What foreign official will now be able to refuse to come to Iraq if the Pope has done so?"
War has taken hundreds of thousands of human lives in the last decade in the Middle East. But not only. It has also pulverised a centuries-old historical heritage of incalculable value. Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya have suffered unprecedented urban devastation. Monuments unique in the world, sculptures, museums, palaces and unrepeatable historic centres are today a mountain of rubble, victims of unreason and brutality. It is simply impossible to quantify the damage caused in hundreds of cities.