Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq was fraught with dangers, from terrorism to Covid-19.
But as his densely packed itinerary neared completion on Sunday, his gamble appeared to have worked, giving him the diplomatic and pastoral platform he has missed since the pandemic began, reports the Wall Street Journal.
The pope’s determination to stage a high-profile international trip with the pandemic still raging makes him practically unique among world leaders at present.
Defying fears and warnings about the trip’s timing, Pope Francis used a series of events, to promote his agenda of support for beleaguered Christians in the Middle East and outreach to Muslims.
The daunting security threats in a country still racked by violence prompted Iraqi forces to guard the pontiff with utmost care, including a near total lockdown of Baghdad.
Braving those dangers “doubles the value of the visit to Iraqis”, the country’s president, Barham Salih, told Francis when he arrived in Baghdad on Friday.
In his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential cleric in Iraq, the pope significantly broadened his campaign for better relations with Muslims to include Shiites. He also elicited a strong statement of support from Sistani for the civil rights of Christians.
The Pope prayed among ruined churches in Mosul, the former IS stronghold, and celebrated Mass at a stadium in Irbil, the last big set piece of his visit, where he said Iraq would remain in his heart.
Thousands of people attended the service despite Covid concerns, the BBC reports.
Iraq, which has seen more than 13,500 deaths from Covid-19 and more than 726,000 cases, has recorded a sharp rise in infections over the past month.
The 84-year-old leader of the Catholic Church and his entourage have all been vaccinated, but Iraq only received its first batch of doses last week.
The four-day trip, which began on Friday, is the pontiff’s first international excursion since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago, and the first ever papal visit to Iraq.
He said the exodus of Christians from Iraq and the broader Middle East had done “incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned but also to the society they leave behind”.
Christian numbers overall have plummeted over the last two decades from 1.4 million to about 250,000, less than 1% of the country’s population.