Pope Francis departed from Rome on Friday morning for a three-day visit to Iraq, undeterred by suggestions that his trip might fuel a surge in coronavirus cases, undaunted by the precarious security situation and committed to offering support to a Christian community decimated by years of war.
It’s the first trip Francis has embarked on since the pandemic swept the world and the first time a head of the Roman Catholic Church is believed to have visited the country. The journey promises to be as rich in symbolism as it is fraught with risk. In an area known as the cradle of civilization, the modern history of Mesopotamia — now present-day Iraq — has endured lasting hardship: three decades of despotic rule, followed by two decades of war and a wave of carnage unleashed by the Islamic State. Once a rich tapestry of faiths, Iraq has been hallowed out as orthodoxies hardened. Its Jews are almost completely gone, and its Christian community grows smaller every year. About one million have fled since the 2003 United States-led invasion. An estimated 500,000 remain.
That backdrop makes the pope’s visit on Saturday to the ancient city of Ur — traditionally held to be the birthplace of Abraham, who is revered by Muslims, Jews and Christians alike — all the more powerful. To that end, his trip carries a motto from the Gospel of Matthew: “You are all brothers.” But the pope’s agenda also casts a spotlight on the terrible toll wrought when divisions harden and violence takes over. On Friday evening he will meet with priests, bishops and others at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad. Just over a decade ago, the church came under assault when attackers unleashed fusillade of grenades, bullets and suicide vests. At least 58 people were killed in the assault, which was carried out by an affiliate of Al Qaeda.
It was far from the deadliest massacre in the country, where tens of thousands of Muslims have died in war and sectarian fighting, but the attack tore at the heart of the Christian community. The Rev. Meyassr al-Qasboutros, a priest who survived the assault, told the New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid that his cousin, Wassim Sabih, was one of the two priests killed. Father Sabih, according to survivors, was pushed to the ground as he grasped a crucifix and pleaded with the gunmen to spare the worshipers. He was then killed. “We must die here,” Father Qasboutros told Mr. Shadid a decade ago. “We can’t leave this country.”
Pope Francis made it clear that after Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI had to scuttle plans to visit the remaining Christians in the country, he would not cancel his own trip.
An image of Francis is painted on the blast walls that now ring Our Lady of Salvation.
“I ask that you accompany this apostolic trip with prayer so that it can occur in the best way possible, bear the hoped-for fruit,” he said before departing Rome. “The Iraqi people await us.”
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