Barring any obstacles caused by the global pandemic, Pope Francis is set to begin international travel again in 2021 by visiting Iraq in March, which would make him the first pope to visit this nation.
“Pope Francis, accepting the invitation of the Republic of Iraq and of the local Catholic Church,” will visit Iraq 5-8 March, said Matteo Bruni, head of the Vatican press office.
“He will visit Baghdad, the plain of Ur, linked to the memory of Abraham, the city of Irbil, as well as Mosul and Qaraqosh in the plain of Ninevah,” Bruni wrote 7 December.
Details about the trip “will be made known in due course and will take into consideration the evolution of the worldwide health emergency,” he added.
It would be the pope’s first international trip since his journey to Thailand and Japan in November 2019.
From Baghdad, Iraqi Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, patriarch of Chaldean Catholics, told Catholic News Service that news of the papal visit was a “huge hope.”
“We are so thirsty for hope,” he said of the Iraqi people.
“People are suffering, dying, because of conflicts and also because of the pandemic. So this visit is a big source of joy for all the population of this region,” Cardinal Sako said.
In a June 2019 meeting with a Vatican coalition of funding agencies, known by its Italian acronym ROACO, the pope told them he had hoped to go to Iraq in 2020.
The pope met with Iraqi President Barham Salih at the Vatican on 25 January 2020.
According to the Vatican, the private talks between the president and the pope, and a separate meeting with other top Vatican officials, underlined the need for promoting stability, reconstruction, national sovereignty and dialogue in the country as well as guaranteeing security for Christians.
There were at least 1.4 million Christians estimated to have been living in Iraq before the U.S.-led coalition’s invasion in 2003.
With the ensuing chaos and violence of war, then the occupation and violence of Islamic State forces in the Ninevah plain, it is estimated there are less than 400,000 Christians in the country, according to Vatican News on 7 December.
There are some 1.7 million people displaced within Iraq, and UNICEF estimates more than 4 million people — half of them children — need humanitarian assistance.