The war may be officially over, but violence still regularly echoes through the towns and cities of Iraq.
Last Monday, rockets hit Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, which hosts government buildings and foreign embassies.
However, barring last-minute changes, Pope Francis will embark on a whirlwind four-day trip to Iraq, starting on Friday, to show solidarity with the country’s devastated Christian community, Reuters is reporting.
“He is itching to get back out on the road after such a long period,” Vatican sources said. “He really feels the need to reach out to people on their home ground.”
The March 5-8 trip will be his first outside Italy since November 2019, when he visited Thailand and Japan. Four trips planned for 2020 were cancelled because of the pandemic.
Vatican officials and local church leaders say they are satisfied that Iraqi forces will be able to provide adequate security for the pope and his entourage.
“The pope is deliberately coming to an area marked by war and violence to bring a message of peace,” the archbishop of Erbil told reporters on a recent conference call. “The authorities are taking the pope’s security very seriously, with 10,000 security personnel deployed for the purpose.”
Another shadow hanging over the trip is the coronavirus pandemic, which, along with the heavy security measures, will drastically limit the number of people who will be able to see the pope in person.
Officials banned most travel within provinces after more than 4,000 new Covid-19 cases were detected on Thursday, making a total of more than 600,000 cases so far.
Francis, 84, has said it is important to make the trip even if most Iraqi Christians will see him only on television.
“They will see the pope is there in their country,” he told Catholic News Service. “I am the pastor of people who are suffering.”
Vatican and Iraqi church officials say they are doing everything possible to ensure that papal appearances do not turn out to be virus super-spreader events.
The pope and his entourage have been vaccinated but most people who will attend papal events have not. The first batch of 50,000 vaccine doses is due to arrive in Iraq from China on Monday.
A Vatican source said that for security reasons and so as not to draw crowds, the pope will use a closed car and not a popemobile on the streets.