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Pope Francis arrived in Baghdad on Friday for a three-day visit to Iraq, undaunted by suggestions that his trip fueling an increase in coronavirus cases, undaunted by the precarious security situation and committed to supporting a Christian community decimated by years of war.
It is the first journey that Francis has embarked on since the pandemic engulfed the world and the first time that a head of the Roman Catholic Church has visited the country.
The journey promises to be as rich in symbolism as it is risky.
"I am happy to travel again," the Pope said, removing his blue surgical mask to address reporters on his way to Iraq. His Alitalia flight was joined by US planes from Ayn al-Asad military base after entering Iraqi airspace.
Choosing Iraq as his first destination since the start of the pandemic, Francis ventured directly into the issues of war and peace, and poverty and religious strife, in an ancient biblical land.
"This journey is symbolic," he said, calling it "a duty to a country that has been tortured for years."
He was welcomed by a small color guard and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
The Pope left the airport complex in a black BMW, his window rolled down. He waved as he passed a small group of faithfully waving Iraqi and Vatican flags behind a metal gate on the side of the highway.
The Pope's vehicle was surrounded by a police motorbike escort as he drove past miles of concrete explosion walls erected during the sectarian violence in Iraq.
After 2003, the road was one of the most dangerous in Baghdad, with frequent roadside bombs and suicide car bombs. Those are now a thing of the past, and palm trees planted to beautify the road greet visitors.
When he arrived at the presidential palace, the Pope's car was flanked by members of the Iraqi security forces on horseback. Francis got out of that car and limped noticeably as he walked down a red carpet.
The Pope is known to suffer from sciatica, which he told reporters in 2013 was the worst that happened to him in his early days as Pope.
It was the beginning of what promised to be an arduous journey that will take the 84-year-old Pope to scarred churches and desert pilgrimage sites.
In an area known as the cradle of civilization, the modern history of Mesopotamia – present-day Iraq – has been marked by persistent hardships: three decades of despotic rule, followed by nearly two decades of war and a wave of carnage unleashed by the Islamic State.
Once a rich tapestry of beliefs, Iraq has been eroded by the hardening of orthodoxy. The Jews have almost completely disappeared and the Christian community is shrinking every year. About one million people have been displaced since the US-led invasion in 2003. An estimated 500,000 remain.
That background makes the Pope's Saturday visit to the ancient city of Ur – traditionally considered the birthplace of Abraham, revered by Muslims, Jews and Christians alike – all the more powerful.
To this end his journey contributes a motto from the Gospel of Matthew, "You are all brothers."
But the Pope's agenda also shines a spotlight on the terrible toll taken when divisions harden and violence takes over.
Friday night he will meet priests, bishops and others at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad. Just over a decade ago, the church was attacked when attackers released a shot of grenades, bullets and suicide vests. At least 58 people were killed in the attack carried out by an Al Qaeda affiliate.
Far from the deadliest massacre in the country, where tens of thousands of Muslims have died in wars and sectarian battles, the attack tore the heart of the Christian community.
An image of Francis is painted on the blast walls that now read Our Lady of Salvation.
Francis made it clear that after Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI had to close plans to visit the remaining Christians in the country, he would not cancel his own trip.
The scars were there for Pope Francis to see: bullet holes in the walls of the Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, tangible reminders of a 2010 attack that accelerated an exodus of Christians from Iraq and tore the heart of the community .
On Friday, light streamed through the colored stained glass, illuminated the Arabic script on the wood paneling, and fell on the masked clergy, nuns, and seminarians three to a bench.
Outside, a roar of joy could be heard as the Pope – surrounded by guards and guarded by soldiers on the roof with heavy weapons – arrived to greet the faithful outside the church.
When the Pope walked into the church and made the sign of the cross, the church erupted in ululations and traditional music.
He shuffled through the red carpet-covered nave, followed by local priests, and sat on a wooden throne in front of the altar. There, Francis heard local bishops speak of the massacre of dozens of people and the general persecution of Christians in Iraq.
But Francis did not need to be reminded.
“We gather in this Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, sanctified by the blood of our brothers and sisters who here paid the ultimate price for their loyalty to the Lord and His Church,” said Francis.
The attack in 2010 killed at least 56 people, including believers, two priests, members of the security forces and bystanders.
Christians had left Iraq since 2003, when Saddam Hussein's overthrow by the United States created a security vacuum. The rise of armed groups subsequently led to civil war. And the church attack was a strong reminder of the security forces' limited ability to protect Christians and other Iraqis
Francis acknowledged Friday that the "daunting pastoral challenges you face on a daily basis have been exacerbated in this time of pandemic."
But he said that despite the pandemic's limitations, their faith should not be controlled.
"We know how easy it is to become infected with the discouragement virus that sometimes seems to spread all around us," he said, adding that God had given them a belief that is "an effective vaccine" against that proverbial virus.
He acknowledged that the hardships had driven so many Christians from Iraq, but urged those in attendance to think about the future and future of the Church by supporting young people.
On a bus that passed through the fourth of about 15 checkpoints they would pass on Friday on its way to Baghdad International Airport, Safa al-Abbia said it was for him and other young Christians attending the arrival ceremony for Pope Francis in Iraq . hard to believe the visit actually happened.
It's not the first time Mr. Abbia, 29, has seen the Pope. Three years ago he visited the Vatican as the leader of young Christians.
"He said," I promise to visit Iraq, "said Mr. Abbia, a dentist." At the time, I didn't believe it. I thought it was impossible. "
About 1,000 Christians and twice as many Muslim Iraqis attended the airport ceremony. The road to the airport, decorated with Vatican and Iraqi flags, was lined with armored vehicles carrying SWAT teams in Iraq's largest security operation in years.
Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, is being locked up for the Pope's three-day visit, with virtually all car traffic banned. Schools and government offices are closed.
Mr Abbia said the Pope's visit felt as if Iraqi youth were being seen.
"Two years ago there was a revolution in Iraq," he said, using the word for the protest movement of young Iraqis who overthrew the previous government before being crushed by security forces. "The first is to live in dignity, and especially the young feel that they have no right to live in their country with dignity. So they emigrate."
Francis has expressed concern about the killings of unarmed protesters in Iraq and has repeatedly insisted that Iraqis and others can live in dignity – including retaining jobs and accessing public services.
Outside the airport, hundreds of believers lined the roads, flags in hand, eager to wave as the Pope passed by.
His drive to the Presidential Palace in Baghdad, about 20 minutes away, took him to the site of a US drone attack that killed Major General Qassim Suleimani – an Iranian military leader – and a senior Iraqi security official a year ago.
The wreckage of one of the vehicles that was hit and the shrapnel-marked walls on the airport road have been preserved by the Iraqi government as a memorial to the dead and as a criticism of the attack.
"Iraq is not 100 percent safe, but the government is paying special attention to it," Abbia said of the Pope's visit. "All eyes of the world are on us."
Pope Francis, citing the "age-old presence of Christians in this country," said on Friday during his visit to Iraq that the country's tragic recent history should serve as a warning not to let fanaticism overwhelm the faith.
He also called for respect for the rights of minority groups.
In one of the country's many palaces – a surviving legacy of Saddam Hussein's rule – the Pope said Iraq's ancient history should serve as inspiration today.
The protection and respect Christians once found in this country, he said, could once again help maintain and protect Iraq's emerging democracy.
"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 prosperity and harmony of the country," he said.
The country, said Francis, knows the cost of spreading hatred.
"In recent decades, Iraq has suffered the disastrous consequences of wars, the scourge of terrorism and sectarian conflicts often based on a fundamentalism incapable of accepting the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups", he said.
But the blame, he said, must be shared.
"I come as a penitent," said the Pope, "for the forgiveness of Heaven and my brothers and sisters for so much destruction and cruelty."
He made his comments after being welcomed by President Barham Salih, who praised him for making the trip.
"Your urge to visit Iraq despite the difficulties of the epidemic and the difficult conditions our country is going through, doubles the value of the visit for Iraqis," said Mr Salih.
While the coronavirus was not the focus of his visit, Francis acknowledged that his journey came as the world "tried to escape the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic." He called for a fair distribution of vaccines to countries where "fragility and instability" are all too well known.
Hardly any Iraqis have been vaccinated against the virus, and social distance restrictions are largely ignored.
Francis also tried to convey a message of hope, calling his visit "long-awaited and desired". He noted that security and economic concerns still pose serious challenges, and said it could also be a moment of opportunity.
"After a crisis, it is not enough to just rebuild," he said. “We have to rebuild properly so that everyone can live a life of dignity. We will never come out of a crisis as we were. We will come out of it better or worse. "
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Since Peter's journey to Rome, traditionally dated to A.D. 44, popes' journeys – known as the Deputies of Christ – have played an integral role in shaping how the world views the Roman Catholic Church.
They also reflect the way Popes view their role in the world.
The modern era of the papal journey began in October 1962, when John XXIII boarded a train at the Vatican City's small train station to visit the Holy House of Loreto and the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. According to historians, it was the first time a Pope had left Rome since 1857, after Pius IX declared himself a "prisoner of the Vatican" in 1870 in protest at the loss of the papal states.
After more than a year locked up behind the walls of the Vatican, Francis traveled to Baghdad on Friday at a tense time in the pandemic, sending a message that violates many public health guidelines.
The Pope said in his weekly speech on Wednesday that he would not be deterred.
“I ask you to prayerfully accompany this apostolic journey so that it can be done in the best possible way, bringing forth the expected fruits,” he said. "The Iraqi people are waiting for us."
Francis, who was vaccinated in mid-January, has urged rich countries to give the poorer vaccines, calling a refusal to vaccinate "suicidal".
The Pope's entourage has also been vaccinated.
The possibility that Francis, who is 84, would accidentally endanger an Iraqi population with virtually no access to vaccines has not been lost to his allies in Rome.
"There is this concern that the Pope's visit will not endanger the health of the people – this is clear," said Reverend Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest and close ally of Francis. "There is an awareness of the problem."
The Vatican insisted that the trip be a safe, socially distant and sober visit without the usual fanfare. A Vatican spokesman also downplayed the number of cases in Iraq when reporters asked how Francis could justify not delaying the trip.
Supporters are concerned that the Pope's goals for the visit could be overshadowed by any indication that he is contributing to the spread of the coronavirus by organizing events where social detachment is difficult to enforce.
It's hard to overestimate the challenges facing Iraq when receiving a visit from Pope Francis and his retinue amid a pandemic and concerns about possible attacks. Those challenges are perhaps only matched by the importance of the visit to Iraq's international image.
The Pope will traverse the country with armored cars, planes and helicopters – every step is carefully choreographed and secured in advance.
His first ride, from Baghdad airport to the presidential palace, took him past worshiping crowds, as well as the wreckage of a U.S. drone attack last year that left Major General Qassim Suleimani, the mighty and shadowy spy master at the head of it. Iranian security apparatus perished. . The attack sparked tensions between the United States and Iran in Iraq, a country sitting in the middle. On Wednesday, 10 missiles were fired at a military base in Western Iraq where US troops are housed.
However, for Iraq, the absence of regular bombing is considered relative stability. And a successful visit from Francis is an opportunity to show the world that Iraq is not just missile attacks and suicide bombings.
The event is one of the largest peacetime security operations since Saddam Hussein's overthrow in 2003. To ensure the safety of the Pope, hundreds of thousands of security personnel are on streets that are essentially empty of civilians.
The Iraqi government has imposed a curfew in cities visited by the Pope and has banned travel between provinces. While it has blamed rising coronavirus cases, the curfews also help maintain security.
The Pope was formally welcomed by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. After that airport ceremony, Francis met with Iraq's head of state, President Barham Salih. Mr Salih, a Kurd who had previously met the Pope in Rome, has made minority rights a priority.
The Pope has not only focused on praying for victims of violence in Iraq. He also condemned the country's security forces' attacks on unarmed protesters and stressed the need for dignity for all Iraqis – demanded by young Iraqis in their calls for jobs and public services.
Mr Kadhimi has promised to deliver just those things, but he oversees a government riddled with corruption and struggling to provide basic services.
To illustrate this, the Iraqi government invited the international news media to follow the visit, accrediting 300 foreign journalists in addition to the papal traveling press. On Friday morning, they were told that no one could attend the arrival ceremony due to organizational problems.
Francis has a busy schedule during the visit. He starts in Baghdad and, as usual, meets with political officials before meeting Catholic clergy and seminarians at Our Lady of Salvation, the Syrian Catholic Church where an attack in 2010 killed more than 50 people.
On Saturday he flies to Najaf, the holiest city for Shias in Iraq. There he will meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a reclusive 90-year-old Muslim cleric who remains almost completely out of public life. The Ayatollah, the most revered Shia cleric in Iraq, rarely meets with foreign dignitaries.
Another highlight of Francis' day will be an interfaith meeting in the Plain of Ur, the tradition of which was the house of Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Francis will give a speech there and then return to Baghdad, where he will celebrate Mass in the Chaldean Church.
On Sunday he will fly to Erbil, in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, where missile attacks have taken place in recent days.
After meeting officials there, the Pope will depart by helicopter for Mosul, a once religiously diverse city devastated by war and the occupation of part of Iraq by the Islamic State. Francis will offer a prayer for war victims in the city's Church Square.
He then travels to Qaraqosh, one of Iraq's most vibrant Christian cities, whose community has been severely eroded by violence and migration over the past decade. He will give a speech in a church and then return to Erbil, where he will celebrate an outdoor mass at the Franso Hariri football stadium.
On Monday he will return to Rome.
In 2015, when the bloody disaster of the Islamic State was on the rise, Eliza Griswold describes the decimation of the Christian community in the region for The New York Times Magazine. Below is an excerpt that provides a historical perspective on Christianity in Iraq.
Most Christians in Iraq call themselves Assyrians, Chaldeans, or Syriac, various names for a common ethnicity rooted in the Mesopotamian kingdoms that flourished between the Tigris and Euphrates for thousands of years before Jesus.
According to Eusebius, an early church historian who claimed to have translated letters between Jesus and a Mesopotamian king, Christianity arrived in the first century. Tradition has it that Thomas, one of the Twelve Apostles, sent Thaddeus, an early Jewish convert, to Mesopotamia to preach the gospel.
As Christianity grew, it coexisted with older traditions – including Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and the monotheism of the Druze, Yezidis, and Mannerists – all of which survive in the region, albeit in greatly diminished form.
From Greece to Egypt, this was the eastern half of Christianity, a troubled community divided by doctrinal differences that persist today: different Catholic churches (those who look to Rome for guidance, and those who don't); de oosterse en oosterse orthodoxen (degenen die geloven dat Jezus twee naturen heeft, menselijk en goddelijk, en degenen die geloven dat hij uitsluitend goddelijk was); en de Assyrische Kerk van het Oosten, die noch katholiek noch orthodox is.
Toen in de zevende eeuw de eerste islamitische legers arriveerden van het Arabische schiereiland, stuurde de Assyrische Kerk van het Oosten missionarissen naar China, India en Mongolië. De verschuiving van het christendom naar de islam gebeurde geleidelijk. Net zoals de verering van oosterse sekten grotendeels plaats maakte voor het christendom, maakte het christendom plaats voor de islam.
Onder islamitische heerschappij leefden oosterse christenen als beschermd volk, Dhimmi: Ze waren ondergeschikt en moesten betalen jizya, maar mochten vaak praktijken observeren die door de islam verboden waren, waaronder het eten van varkensvlees en het drinken van alcohol. Moslimheersers waren over het algemeen toleranter ten opzichte van minderheden dan hun christelijke tegenhangers, en gedurende 1500 jaar bloeiden verschillende religies naast elkaar.
Honderd jaar geleden luidden de val van het Ottomaanse rijk en de Eerste Wereldoorlog de grootste periode van geweld tegen christenen in de regio in. Bij de genocide die door de jonge Turken werd gepleegd in naam van nationalisme, niet van religie, kwamen minstens twee miljoen Armeniërs, Assyriërs en Grieken om het leven. Bijna alle waren christen.
Onder degenen die het overleefden, vertrokken veel van de hoger opgeleiden naar het Westen. Anderen vestigden zich in Irak en Syrië, waar ze werden beschermd door de militaire dictators die deze vaak economisch machtige minderheden het hof maakten.
Van 1910 tot 2010 bleef het percentage van de bevolking in het Midden-Oosten dat christen was – in landen als Egypte, Israël, Palestina en Jordanië – afnemen.
Al meer dan een decennium richten extremisten zich op christenen en andere minderheden, die vaak als stand-ins voor het Westen dienen. Dit gold vooral in Irak na de Amerikaanse invasie, waardoor honderdduizenden op de vlucht sloegen.
Met de val van Saddam Hoessein begonnen christenen Irak in groten getale te verlaten, en de bevolking kromp tot minder dan 500.000 vandaag van maar liefst 1,5 miljoen in 2003.