Despite a global pandemic and civil unrest, Pope Francis launched a three-day trip to Iraq Friday, the first pope ever to visit the dwindling Christian community in the country. He aims to bring attention to the plight of the church there, which dates back to the time of Jesus, and to promote interfaith peace.
"Iraq has suffered the disastrous effects of wars, the scourge of terrorism and sectarian conflicts often grounded in a fundamentalism incapable of accepting the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups," Francis said in a speech upon his arrival.
While the pope's agenda includes trips to a Muslim holy city and visits with Islamic leaders, his primary purpose in going to Iraq is to encourage the historic Christian community there, which dates back to the time of Jesus.
"The pope's visit is to support the Christians in Iraq to stay, and to say that they are not forgotten," the Chaldean patriarch, Cardinal Luis Sako, told reporters in Baghdad earlier in the week. Francis's aim, he said, is to encourage them to "hold onto hope".
In the past two decades, the number of Christians in Iraq - most of whom are Catholic - has shrunk by 80 percent, from roughly 1.4 million in 1987, according to the Iraqi census, to fewer than 250,000 today, according to estimates. The instability that followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 put them in peril, and the rise of extremist groups in his wake ushered in an increase in violence against Christians, who were often the victims of killings, attacks and kidnappings. Their situation became all the more tenuous with the arrival of the Islamic State group, which cut a swath through towns in the Ninevah plains, which are traditionally Christian, forcing residents to flee.
Christians in Iraq are regarded with suspicion by much of the Muslim majority there and are seen as being agents of the United States and the West in general. Like Christians in many countries in the region, they have long faced structural discrimination. Since 2003, the public sector has been largely controlled by the majority Shiite elites, pushing them out of the mainstream.
Most Iraqi Christians are Assyrians and belong to one of the branches of Eastern Christianity. They speak a dialect of Aramaic, the language that scholars believe Jesus spoke. Two-thirds of Christians in Iraq belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church.
'A moment of hope'
But can a four-day visit make a difference for Iraqi Christians?
The visit gives people hope, said Father Patrick Desbois, who works with the Yazidi minority in Iraq. "I would say the coming of the pope is like a moment of hope," he told FRANCE 24. "It gives them dignity ... it's like a moment of light."
That sentiment was echoed by faithful on the ground. "We're hoping the pope will explain to the government that it needs to help its people," a Christian from northern Iraq, Saad al-Rassam, told AFP. "We have suffered so much, we need the support."
But hope is not the same as change.
"For the Christians in Iraq ... what can protect them in the long term is a constitution that actually protects equality of all citizens," Ramazan Kilinc, Associate Professor at Nebraska University, told FRANCE 24. "I think that's key."
Francis was greeted Friday by Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi and then taken to the Presidential Palace in Baghdad for an official welcoming ceremony. After the festivities he went to the Church of Our Lady of Salvation, where suicide bombers killed 58 people in 2010 and thanked the priests there
On Saturday he will meet privately in the holy city of Najaf with the country's top Shiite cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, marking the first meeting ever between a pope and a Grand Ayatollah. Francis will then attend an inter-religious meeting in the ancient city of Ur, which is where Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is said to have been born. He will finish the day with Mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Baghdad.
On Sunday, the Francis will fly to Erbil to meet with Kurdish officials, then will take a helicopter to Mosul, where he will pray for the victims of the war against the IS group. He will visit the Christian town of Qaraqosh and bless their church, which was used as a firing squad by the IS group. He will finish the day by leading a Mass in the football stadium in Erbil. He will leave Iraq on Monday.
'The whole world will be watching'
The stakes in this trip are considerably high for the Iraqi government, which is keen to show the world that it is able to maintain a level of security and ensure the Pope's safety, despite the ongoing militant attacks that continue to plague the country after years of war. In January, 32 people were killed in a suicide attack in Baghdad that was claimed by the IS group.
The Vatican will be relying on Iraqi security forces for protection, but Francis has made concessions as well. He is using an armoured car for the first time, in lieu of his usual open-topped popemobile.
"This visit is really important to us and provides a good perspective of Iraq because the whole world will be watching," Tahsin al-Khafaji, spokesman for Iraq's joint operations, told the Associated Press.
And there are health concerns as well. Coronavirus cases have once again spiked in Iraq, and the majority of cases are of the variant discovered in Britain. The octogenarian pope has been vaccinated, as has his entourage, but most Iraqis have not, meaning that those who come to see the pontiff may be putting themselves at risk if social distancing is not observed and people don't wear masks. The government is trying to limit the size of the crowds so that sanitary measures can be observed.