An Iraqi soldier walks past a concrete wall decorated with the effigy of Pope Francis on his upcoming visit to Iraq.Khalid Mohammed / AP
It's hard to overstate the symbolism of Pope Francis' visit to Iraq.
This Friday's trip, the first by a pontiff to the country that is home to one of the oldest Christian communities, has been presented as an endorsement of that minority decimated by Islamic radicalism and interreligious dialogue.
But beyond the pastoral content, it represents an endorsement of a nation that, after decades of chain conflicts, is facing a deep economic, political and health crisis.
Many Iraqis see a breath of hope in the fact that a foreign dignitary will defy insecurity and the coronavirus to step on their land.
"It is a source of pride for Iraq," says Hasan al Zubaidi, president of the Rafidain Center for Dialogue, during a video conference.
"It is true that there are security and health risks, but the benefits for peace and dialogue outweigh those," he says.
This study center, located in Najaf, a city considered to be the
, has carried out a survey in which most of the participants believe that the visit “will positively influence the relations between the different Iraqi communities and improve the image of Iraq in the region and in the world ”.
Iraq, whose inhabitants are overwhelmingly Muslim, is home to one of the oldest and most diverse Christian communities in the world (14 officially recognized denominations).
Most of these believers are concentrated in the capital, Baghdad, and the north of the country, in the province of Nineveh and the autonomous region of Kurdistan, where some churches date from the 5th and 6th centuries and the Aramaic language is still preserved. of Jesus Christ.
But it is a population that is heavily punished by violence and fear.
In 2003, when the US intervention brought down Saddam Hussein, there were 1.5 million Christians out of 25 million Iraqis.
Today, estimates vary between 150,000 and 300,000 out of a total of 40 million.
They were first victims of the sectarianism that bled the country in the middle of the first decade of this century.
Between 2014 and 2017, the Islamic State (ISIS) tried to end its presence in the areas it had under its rule.
Population displacements in the face of forced conversions and destroyed churches bear witness to those dark days.
For Iraqi Christians, Francis' visit is a recognition of what they have suffered for their beliefs.
For the rest, it is also an important political message.
"The presence of the Pope in Mosul will represent another nail in the coffin of ISIS and all those who have wanted to annihilate the cosmopolitan air of Mosul," wrote the Iraqi Mina al Oraibi, editor of the Emirati newspaper
in relation to the capital. of Nineveh where the Pontiff has planned a prayer for the victims of the war.
Appointment with the Sistani Ayatollah
The head of the Catholic Church has promised to pray not only with Christians of other denominations, but with Muslims, Yazidis and Mandaeans, these last two religions born in Iraqi lands before the arrival of Christianity.
You will also visit the ruins of Ur, the city of ancient Mesopotamia where Abraham, the father of the three great monotheistic creeds (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), is supposed to have been born.
But the most important appointment is going to be the one I keep with the spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shiites (and one of the most influential figures of Shi'ism in the world), Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, in Najaf.
Presented as a “courtesy call” on the official program, its scope goes beyond the ecumenical.
Sistani, who turned 90 last summer, does not appear in public and receives few visits, has become a tutelary figure of Iraqi politics since the overthrow of Saddam.
But unlike Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with whom he maintains important theological differences, defends the separation of political and religious institutions.
Francis hopes to be able to join Sistani in the agreement on the Human Fraternity for Peace in the World that he signed in 2019 with Sheikh Ahmed al Tayeb, great imam of Al Azhar and the highest Sunni authority, according to Cardinal Luis Sako, patriarch. of the Chaldean Church of Iraq.
That document, sealed during his visit to the United Arab Emirates, calls for dialogue, mutual respect and cooperation between religions.
If the Sistani Ayatollah endorses it, many will see him as the most prominent Shiite leader in the world, something that will not please the followers of Khamenei.
It will not be the only one of the Pope's challenges.
Your safety is concerned.
Unlike the few leaders who have visited Iraq in recent years, Francis will not stay in Baghdad's ultra-protected Green Zone or in a couple of military bases, and the Vatican has published the itinerary of his trip in advance.
It will land in Baghdad on Friday and then travel to Najaf, Ur, Erbil and Mosul.
In addition, he will celebrate a mass in the Chaldean cathedral in the capital, where in 2010 fifty faithful died in an attack, and another in a stadium in Erbil that served as a refuge for many Christians fleeing ISIS.
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An added risk of these crowds is the coronavirus.
Although the Pontiff and those who accompany him on the trip have long been vaccinated, Iraq has only received its first batch of vaccines, 50,000 doses of Sinopharm as a gift from China, this Tuesday.
The nuncio in Baghdad, Mitja Leskovar, tested positive for covid a couple of days earlier.