Despite security concerns and a new curfew to contain the spread of COVID-19, Iraq’s government says Pope Francis can safely make his March 5-8 visit to the country
Church and government officials in Iraq are doing all they can to make sure that the first papal visit ever to their Middle Eastern country can take place next month as scheduled, despite the continuing coronavirus pandemic and calls to cancel the trip.
Pope Francis is set to go to Iraq from March 5-8. And one of the most anticipated events of the brief visit is a private meeting between him and the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
The Muslim cleric’s message on Twitter was meant to counter fringe groups in the country that have come out against the papal visit.
“A strong signal”
The opposition “is not structured and concerns the most rigid elements”, according to Loys de Pampelonne, who recently completed a two-year mission in Iraq as regional director of the Catholic aid agency, Oeuvre d’Orient.
He pointed that “it is rare for Al-Sadr to take a position”.
“His tweet is a strong signal in the Shia community,” the French humanitarian said.
Francis is scheduled to visit Najaf, a city Al-Sadr has called the “capital of religions”.
And de Pampelonne said that his willingness to welcome the pope also reflects a certain “desire to show that the Shia faith remains the center of the religion”.
The former head of Oeuvre d’Orient in Iraq said the pope’s scheduled visit to the city of Ur should be another highlight of the upcoming visit.
“It is a high point because the three monotheistic religions of the book claim filiation with Abraham. The city of Ur is a common place for the Bible and the Quran,” he said.
Francis’ visit to Iraq is a “strong message of inter-religious dialogue in a country where Daech (ISIS) has created gaping chasms between communities,” de Pampelonne said.
The country is majority Shia and is governed by Prime Minister Mohammed Tawfik Allawi.
Shia parties dominate his governing coalition, but the government is divided between three personalities that represent different communities.
While the Prime Minister is a Shia, President Barham Saleh is of Kurdish origin and the speaker of parliament, Mohamed al-Halbousi, is a Sunni.
Establishment of a curfew
The government announced strict new measures on February 14 to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, including curfews, the wearing of masks in public, the closing of schools and shopping malls and other measures.
The announcement came a day after Iraq reported that there were approximately 641,000 cases of infection in the country (according to the “Quand partir” website of the daily newspaper Ouest-France).
On that same day, the papal nuncio in Iraq, Slovenian Archbishop Mitja Leskovar, met with the country’s prime minister to finalize details of the pope’s arrival ceremony.
“The pope’s trip has been very well prepared by the Chaldean Church,” de Pampelonne said.
“The government is now taking everything in hand to ensure the security for the event,” he pointed out.
And there are many good reasons for this. But one in particular stands out.
“The international media coverage that will arrive in two weeks will be a real window on the world for Iraq,” de Pampelonne said.
“It’s a message of openness to the world beyond the religious divides,” he added.