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Despite Security And COVID-19 Issues, Pope Francis Will Travel To Iraq


OK. Let's leave the virtual campus and go out into the world because Pope Francis plans to visit Iraq this week. He's coming despite the pandemic and despite ongoing violence. Rockets fell on a U.S. military base in Iraq just yesterday. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Francis said last month this visit is important because he's the pastor of people who are suffering. And his mind is made up, says Iraq's top Catholic leader Cardinal Louis Sako, Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon.


LOUIS SAKO: (Through interpreter) The pope is determined to visit Iraq because it's important. It's the cradle of ancient civilization. And Christians have suffered so much here. It's a holy land, like Palestine, where parts of the Bible were written.

POGGIOLI: Along with Baghdad, Francis will visit Erbil and Mosul in the north, where most of the country's dwindling numbers of Christians live. He'll also meet the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of Shia Islam's top leaders, in the holy city of Najaf. And he'll hold an interfaith prayer. Iraq is still in conflict. There was a suicide attack in Baghdad in January and ongoing rocket attacks on U.S. military positions. Davide Bernocchi is the head of Catholic Relief Services in Iraq, which helps Iraqis rebuild their country socially as well as materially. He plays down security concerns, saying all the various ethnic and religious communities welcomed the papal visit.

DAVIDE BERNOCCHI: They consider this visit as a huge sign of respect and attention vis a vis Iraq. The popularity of Pope Francis and his message are going to be the best defense mechanism for security, you know?

POGGIOLI: An even bigger worry is the pandemic. The pope, his entourage and the traveling media have been vaccinated against COVID-19, but few Iraqis have. Many health experts worry crowds pressing to see Francis could become super-spreader events. Asked by reporters whether the trip's timing is imprudent, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said all health precautions are being taken. And he defended the pope's determination to go as...


MATTEO BRUNI: An act of love, an act of love for this land, for this people, for its Christians. Every act of love may be or can be interpreted as extreme.

POGGIOLI: The visit will focus on Iraqi Christians who belong to a dozen different sects. In 2003, they were 1.5 million. With the mass exodus after the war and three years of brutal repression under the ISIS caliphate, which brutalized Muslims and Christians, Christians now number some 300,000. Iraqi priest, Father Karam Qasha (ph), hopes the visit will help restore returning Christians' trust in their Muslim neighbors.

KARAM QASHA: (Through interpreter) When ISIS came, our neighbors were the first to come steal from us. So how could you go to your neighbor who's still there, look at them and know they were among those who came to rob your house?

POGGIOLI: The pope's visit sends the powerful message, says Davide Bernocchi, that Christian history is not over in Iraq. But at the same time, he adds, the pope will push Christians out of what he calls their comfort zone.

BERNOCCHI: And tell them, dear brothers and sisters, in order to survive in this country and to prosper again, we need to renew community and interpersonal relations on the basis of human fraternity.

POGGIOLI: Francis has been pursuing interfaith dialogue throughout his eight year papacy. In a speech to the diplomatic corps to the Vatican last month, he said dialogue is an important component of the encounter between peoples and cultures.


POPE FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) Dialogue can become an opportunity for religious leaders and the followers of different confessions and can support the responsible efforts of political leaders to promote the common good.

POGGIOLI: Francis is the first pope ever to visit Iraq, the birthplace of the prophet Abraham, revered by all three monotheistic religions. It's in the very place of Abraham's birth, on the plane of Ur, that he will hold an interreligious ceremony for Christians, Muslims and Yazidis and other religious minorities.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAHIM ALHAJ'S "LETTER 1. EASTERN LOVE - SINAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.