A member of the civil defense team disinfects inside Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, Iraq, Dec. 30, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pope Francis plans to visit Iraq March 5-8. (CNS photo/Thaier Al-Sudani, Reuters)

Editorial: High risk, reward

  • February 18, 2021

It has been 15 months since Pope Francis made a pastoral trip outside Italy and that by itself makes his March 5-8 mission to Iraq newsworthy. But there’s much more at stake here than dipping his toe into foreign waters for apostolic purposes.

The Pope is diving headlong into a situation that is both delicate and dangerous, physically as well as spiritually. At this writing, it is not even 100-per-cent certain the trip can happen, given the pandemic and the always touchy security issues in a country that is persistently rocked with violence.

In 2000, St. John Paul II was planning to be the first pope to visit the region, but it was cancelled as negotiations broke off between then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and the Vatican. In 2019, Pope Francis announced his intention to visit the Mideast country the following year, but that was derailed by growing anti-government protests. Immediately after this latest trip was announced in January, suicide bombers from the Islamic State set off explosions in Baghdad that killed at least 32 people.

If any of this gives the 84-year-old Pope pause, he’s not showing it. It is important the people of Iraq “see the Pope is there in their country,” he told reporters last month.

Is there any reason why the Pope should put himself in harm’s way? Apparently, yes. “I am the pastor of people who are suffering,” he told the Catholic News Service.

The problems in Iraq run deep and religious minorities are often the target, caught between the violence that engulf the Shiite and Sunni Muslim populations and the ever-dangerous Islamic State. There are an estimated 150,000 Christians in Iraq today, a far cry from the million-plus just 20 years ago. Make no mistake … the Christian community here has bordered on extinct, victims of discrimination and violence.

Christians, once fleeing for their lives, are only now beginning to slowly move back to their ancestral homes in places like Qaraqosh, one of the stops on Francis’ itinerary, where agencies like the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) aid the rebuilding efforts. The situation is further complicated by a government in turmoil and facing increasingly violent protests by the country’s youth looking to a future free from oppressive unemployment and corruption.

Into this maelstrom, Pope Francis descends with a clear message, says Cardinal Louis Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, representing the largest group of Christians in Iraq. “The Pope will come to say, ‘Enough, enough war, enough violence; seek peace and fraternity and the safeguarding of human dignity.’”

It is a universal message that the Pope has delivered more than once. This time, though, he is delivering it in a physical setting that has been often volatile and unstable, not to mention potentially unhealthy should COVID-19 cases spike.

Yes, there is risk, but potentially great reward as well in a region that so sorely needs it. That is what the Pope prays for, as do we.

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