This will be Francis’ 33 trip outside Italy.
Pope Francis is about to begin his 33rd apostolic journey outside of Italy, with a March 5-8 journey to Iraq. He will be the first Successor of Peter to set foot on Iraqi soil.
Here’s a five-point look back at this historic journey.
1- Iraq: John Paul II’s long-awaited journey
Pope Francis is on the verge of realizing one of the dreams that John Paul II was unable to fulfill. For the Jubilee of the Year 2000, the Polish pontiff planned to travel to Ur, about 220 miles south of Baghdad, to visit the place where Abraham, the father of believers, lived. For security and political reasons, his wish could not be fulfilled.
This is a heartbreak that Pope Francis has in mind. At the beginning of February, he told American journalists that his predecessor had “wept” at not being able to set foot on the soil of Mesopotamia. He added that he did not want to disappoint the Iraqi people a second time, a message he repeated at the general audience on March 3.
“It is a great sign that he can go to the homeland of Abraham twenty years after this desire of John Paul II,” rejoiced Msgr. Pascal Gollnisch, director of the Oeuvre d’Orient. “The site of Ur is an essential place in salvation history, a place where the three monotheistic religions can recognize themselves in what unites them, that is to say, the posterity and spirituality of Abraham. It will be one of the highlights of this journey,” emphasizes the man who is also Vicar General of Eastern Catholics in France.
2- The first papal journey in the COVID-19 era
On November 26, 2019, when the pope disembarked from the plane that brought him back from Japan and Thailand, no one suspected that the Argentinean pontiff would not travel abroad again for more than a year. The COVID-19 crisis, which started some few weeks later, in fact put in doubt all of the plans for apostolic visits by the Supreme Pontiff—trips to Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, for example, had to be cancelled.
For the head of the Catholic Church, the fear is that his presence could lead to movements of large crowds that would encourage the spread of the epidemic. “I can’t, in good conscience, encourage gatherings,” he said in a television interview last January. He even mentioned the possibility of postponing his visit to Iraq, if the health situation required it.
3- Fifteen hours in the sky, nine flights on the program
At the age of 84, Pope Francis is about to make his 33rd trip outside of Italy. Recently limited in his movements by a painful sciatica flare up, the pontiff will have to get on and off a plane or helicopter nine times. In addition to the 1,900 miles he will have to travel from Rome to Baghdad (a 3,800-mile round trip), the Argentinean pontiff will travel nearly 950 miles inside Iraq, each time by air.
He will travel twice in a military helicopter—to Mosul and Qaraqosh. In Iraq, the longest flight will take just over an hour (Baghdad – Erbil); the fastest, between Mosul and Qaraqosh, will take only 20 minutes. In just four days, the Bishop of Rome will spend about 15 hours in the sky.
4- (Very) uncertain health and safety conditions
An outbreak of COVID-19 which is on the rise again and serious security incidents… The pope’s visit to Iraq takes place in circumstances that are delicate to say the least. “We are far from being in the best of scenarios,” says someone well acquainted with the country. First of all, in terms of health, while the number of new cases had reached a very low plateau in mid-January, the curve has clearly reversed and worries authorities, who have taken restrictive measures (curfews and confinement on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until the end of the Pope’s visit on March 8).
On the security front, the suicide bombing in the heart of Baghdad on January 21 and the rocket attacks in mid-February in the region of Erbil—where a papal mass is to be celebrated in a stadium—illustrate the instability of a country that has known the sound of weapons for so many years.
“The context is special, of course, but let us remember that if the Pope is coming to Iraq, it is because the country is suffering,” said Br. Olivier Poquillon, a Dominican from Mosul. “You know, in the East, when you want to honor people, you don’t invite them to your home, but you go to meet them. This is exactly what the Pope wants to do: come to visit the suffering members of his family,” continues the religious who defines this trip as “a visit of compassion.”
5- A historic meeting on the program
The meeting between Pope Francis and one of the highest Shiite Islam authorities in the world will certainly be one of the highlights of the papal visit. On March 6, the day after his arrival in Iraq, the Argentinean pontiff will meet with Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, 90 years old, in his modest residence in Najaf, a holy city of Shiite Islam that houses the mausoleum of Imam Ali.
While a joint statement is not expected at the end of the meeting—as was the case between the Pope and Sunni leader al-Tayyeb in 2019—this meeting is of great importance.
“For Shia Islam, which has become a minority today, this meeting with Pope Francis is fundamental because it means that the entire family of Islam is now taken into account,” said Father Christopher Clohessy, a professor at the Pontifical Institute for Arab Studies and Islamology (PISAI). The eminent scholar of Shia Islam says that the Pope, by this gesture, “is sending a message to the Shia that they are not forgotten and assures them that they are an integral part of the process of dialogue and peace in the world.”
See more information about the trip here.