Iraq is all set to welcome the historic first papal visit to the country. The Catholic leader Pope Francis will embark on his foreign visit to Iraq on Friday (March 5) after a long gap of 15-months due to the pandemic despite new Covid restrictions, which came into effect in Iraq last week.
The visit is expected to last for 3 days with an all-vaccinated team. This is the 33rd foreign visit by Pope Francis in eight years. The Iraqi government said it would ensure high security to the pope during the three-day visit to six cities. However, the papal visit worries health experts as Iraq's daily recorded cases have doubled in less than a week, with tightened restrictions of overnight curfews and a full three-day lockdown at weekends.
The 84-year-old Pope Francis will begin his visit from the country's presidential palace, greeted by Iraq's president Barham Salih and prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. He will meet bishops, priests and other representatives of civil society at the city's Syro-Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation.
The leader will visit the city of Najaf and meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. The pope Francis will visit the cities of Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh to hold discussions with people to rebuild their communities and churches. In Mosul, the pontiff will pray at a memorial for victims of Islamic State, and in Qaraqosh, he will visit the Saint Mary al-Tahira Cathedral which is being revamped after the damage caused by IS fighters.
Thousands of Christians in the area were killed under the rule of IS between 2014 and 2017 while hundreds of thousands more fled their homes in the face of violence and persecution.
"The Pope's message is that the Church stands beside those who suffer," said Najeeb Michaeel, Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, to AFP. "He will have powerful words for Iraq, where crimes against humanity have been committed."
Reports say that the Iraq has witnessed a sharp decline in the Christian population over the past decade and a half.