By Robin Gomes
Pope Francis “does not come to Iraq to solve all the problems" of the country. It is also not his duty to make Christians who have emigrated return or to recover their usurped property. “This is one of the responsibilities of the Iraqi government to create suitable conditions for their return.” The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Baghdad, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako made the point in an official statement on Patriarchate’s website. He was responding to those criticizing the papal visit on social media.
The Vatican on December 7 announced that Pope Francis will make an apostolic visit to Iraq from March 5 to 8. This first-ever visit of a Pope to the middle-eastern country will take him to Baghdad, the plains of Ur, Mosul and Qaraqosh.
It will be the Pope’s first foreign trip after a 15-month gap due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The last journey outside of Italy by Pope Francis was to Thailand and Japan in November 2019.
Unfulfilled dream of John Paul II
Back in 1999, Saint Pope John Paul II had wanted to visit the ancient Iraqi city of Ur of the Chaldeans, as part of his visit to Iraq, the Holy Land and Egypt, on the occasion of the Jubilee Year 2000. Traditionally, Ur is regarded as the birthplace of Abraham, the father of the three monotheistic religions - Christianity, Judaism and Islam. But the dream of a visit to Iraq never materialized due to several reasons, including security concerns, under Saddam Hussein. Pope John Paul II visited the Holy Land and Egypt in 2000. Pope Francis is now set to realize his predecessor’s dream.
The number of Christians in Iraq has greatly dwindled following sectarian warfare after the 2003 US-led invasion and the Islamic State’s sweep through a third of the country in 2014.
In his brief statement, Patriarch Sako noted that the papal visit is “a historic and exceptional visit, given the circumstances in which the country and the region is living”. “We consider it a blessing, a visit that we hope will have an echo of reconciliation and unification for the sake of reviving the country.”
He pointed out that “the Pope cannot visit all the Christian towns and all the shrines” of Iraq. However, Christians are grateful that he is visiting official stations such as Baghdad, Erbil, Ramziyya, Najaf, Ur, Mosul, Qaraqosh and Ghadida in the Nineveh Plains.
Patriarch Sako stressed that the Holy Father “does not come to solve all problems, but rather to express his solidarity and stand with the Iraqis, and will carry messages of love, brotherhood, reconciliation, tolerance, peace, respect for life, diversity and pluralism”.
Make a successful and safe visit
The Patriarchate asked those writing about the papal visit on social media to be “more positive and supportive of everything that would make this visit a success”. It pointed out that the “Iraqi government is grateful, and has taken all necessary measures to make it historic and worthy of Iraq and the Iraqis". The Patriarchate invited everyone to pray for the safety of Pope Francis holiness and the success of the visit for the good of the country and the people.
When the papal trip was announced, the Iraqi government described it an “historic event”. “It symbolizes a message of peace to Iraq and the whole region,” the foreign ministry said. The Iraqi president, Barham Salih, had officially invited Pope Francis to visit Iraq in July 2019, hoping it would help the country heal after years of strife.