ROME — Pope Francis’ plans to travel to Iraq on March 5 are “unaffected” by recent violence in Baghdad and Erbil, the Vatican and Iraq’s Foreign Ministry concur.
Last Monday, an Iraqi armed group called Guardian of Blood Brigades fired off more than a dozen rockets at the airport and civilian areas of Erbil, killing a U.S. military contractor and wounding six others, including a U.S. service member.
On January 21, twin suicide bombings perpetrated by Islamic State terrorists in Baghdad claimed 32 lives, injuring at least 100 more.
In December, Iran-linked gang members and militia fighters carried out bombing raids on liquor stories in Baghdad, mostly owned by Christians and Yazidis.
Erbil and Baghdad are both on the pope’s itinerary for his March 5-8 apostolic visit to the country, but in spite of recent violence, both the Vatican and the Iraqi government said this week the trip will proceed as planned.
On February 8, the Vatican published the itinerary for the papal trip, which will begin in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and includes stops in Ur, Erbil, Mosul, and Qaraqosh in the Nineveh Plains.
That same day, Pope Francis said his journey to Iraq would be an important sign of his concern for the region’s Christians as well as an important opportunity to build fraternity through interreligious dialogue.
“In our time, interreligious dialogue is an important component of the encounter between peoples and cultures,” the pope told ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, adding:
When it is viewed not in terms of compromising our own identity but as an occasion of mutual understanding and enrichment, 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.
The Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda, said the papal visit “will be a huge event for which we are preparing as best as we can.”
Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, the Baghdad-based Chaldean patriarch, reiterated that all of Iraq awaits the pope in anxious anticipation.
“The coming of Pope Francis to Iraq is highly anticipated,” Cardinal Sako said. “In recent days, I met with the country’s top authorities, the Iraqi president, the premier, to talk about this trip. They are all happy because they know how important this event is for the good of Iraq and its people.”
Iraqi authorities have declared a “total curfew” during the pope’s March 5-8 visit following recent violence.
The government explained the curfew as a means of curbing the spread of the coronavirus, but its strictest expression coincided with the three days of the papal trip and will end when the pope leaves the country.
The government has also ordered the closure of all mosques and other places of worship until further notice but insists this will not affect the pope’s visit.