By Courtney Mares
Vatican City, Dec 7, 2020 (CNA) - The Vatican announced Monday that Pope Francis will travel to Iraq in March 2021. He will be the first pope to ever visit the country, which is still recovering from the devastation inflicted by the Islamic State.
The four-day papal trip to Iraq March 5-8 will include stops in Baghdad, Erbil and Mosul. It will be the pope’s first international trip in over a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq comes at the request of the Republic of Iraq and the local Catholic Church, Holy See Press Office Director Matteo Bruni told journalists Dec.7.
During the trip, the pope will visit the Christian communities in the Nineveh plain, which were ravaged by the Islamic State from 2014 to 2016 causing Christians to flee the region. Pope Francis has repeatedly expressed his closeness to these persecuted Christian communities and his desire to visit Iraq.
Security concerns have prevented the pope from fulfilling his desire to visit Iraq in recent years.
Pope Francis said in 2019 that he wanted to visit Iraq in 2020, however the Vatican confirmed before the coronavirus outbreak in Italy that no papal trip to Iraq would occur this year.
Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin visited Iraq during the Christmas season in 2018, and concluded at the time that the country was still unsafe for a papal visit.
The official program for the pope’s first scheduled apostolic trip since the start of the pandemic will be released at a further date and “will take into consideration the evolution of the worldwide health emergency,” Bruni said.
The pope will visit the plain of Ur in southern Iraq, which the Bible records as the birthplace of Abraham. He will also visit the town of Qaraqosh in northern Iraq, where Christians have been working to rebuild thousands of homes and four churches damaged by the Islamic State.
The president of Iraq, Barham Salih, welcomed the news of the papal visit, writing on Twitter on Dec. 7: “The journey of Pope Francis to Mesopotamia- cradle of civilization, birthplace of Abraham, father of the faithful- will be a message of peace to Iraqis of all religions & serve to affirm our common values of justice & dignity.”
Christianity has been present in the Nineveh plain in Iraq – between Mosul and Iraqi Kurdistan – since the first century.
While many Christians who fled the Islamic State’s onslaught in 2014 have not returned to their homes, those who did return have been trying to face the challenges of rebuilding with hope and strength, a Chaldean Catholic priest, Fr. Karam Shamasha, told CNA in November.
Six years after the Islamic State invaded, Iraq faces difficult economic problems along with the physical and psychological hurt caused by the conflict, the priest explained.
“We are trying to heal this wound created by ISIS. Our families are strong; they have defended the faith. But they need someone who says, ‘You have done very well, but you must continue your mission,’” he said.