The trip, which marks the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, will also include meetings with the country’s top political and religious officials.
“For some time I have wanted to meet that people who suffered so much, Francis said on Wednesday. “The people of Iraq are waiting for us. They were waiting for St. Pope John Paul II, who was not allowed to go,” he added, referring to a planned trip in 2000 which was canceled after a breakdown in talks between the Vatican and then President Saddam Hussein.
“The people cannot be let down for a second time. Let us pray that this trip can be carried out well.”
Iraqi officials have hailed the visit as an important moment for the country, while privately admitting that the timing of the trip has proved a challenge for authorities.
Iraq has imposed a total curfew for the entirety of the four-day papal visit in an attempt to minimize health and security risks.
One of the key parts of the Pope’s itinerary is a Saturday visit to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a widely revered Shia cleric. Sistani will receive the pontiff at his residence in the holy city of Najaf, to the south of Baghdad.
The papal meeting with the 90-year old Sistani — who is rarely seen in public — can be seen as one of the most significant summits between a pope and a leading Shia Muslim figure.
Francis has met with leading Sunni cleric Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb on several occasions, famously co-signing a 2019 document pledging “human fraternity” between world religions.
The meeting with Sistani is expected by some to serve as the Shia Muslim component of the pontiff’s efforts to bolster interfaith relations.
‘I hope the Pope stays for a month’
The Pope is also scheduled to visit several Iraqi areas and cities linked to the Bible, such as the plain of Ur, considered the birthplace of Abraham.
He is believed to have long wished to go to Iraq, which figures heavily in the Bible, and whose dwindling Christian minority has suffered greatly from the country’s long cycles of violence.
Thought to be one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, prior to the 2003 US invasion, there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Around 80% of them have since fled, according to leading Christian clerics there.
Members of the Christian minority, which was the target of repeated attacks by extremists, say they hope the papal visit will underscore the neglect they feel they have endured from Iraq’s authorities.
Many in the country’s Muslim majority, who loudly complain about government corruption and mismanagement, also have their hopes pinned on trip.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis staged months-long street demonstrations, some of which were violently quashed, in the months before the coronavirus pandemic began to spread here.
“The country needs services, security and peace,” said 50-year-old Mohammed Jassem. “[The Pope] can’t give us these things but we ask him to call on the leadership and the parties for these things.”
“We call on him to unify its ethnicity … the country requires unity and we hope he can bring us this,” he added.
Iraqi authorities have been busy preparing for the papal visit, cleaning streets and re-paving others where the Vatican delegation is scheduled to go. New street lamps light the roads and many previously broken traffic lights are back in commission.
The irony is not lost on Iraqis. “The streets of Baghdad have become a lot better within a week,” said 41-year-old shopkeeper Ahmad al-Assadi. “I wish he would stay for a month and tour all of Iraq … maybe then they can fix the entire country.”
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