BAGHDAD — During his visit to the Vatican on Dec. 3, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari invited Pope Francis to visit Iraq, noting that the best time to visit would be once the Islamic State (IS) is defeated and displaced Christians are returning to their homes.
Other Iraqi officials have brought up such a visit in the past, such as the undersecretary of the Ministry of Health and Environment, Jassim al-Falahi, who told the media in June that “Iraq was preparing for a planned visit by the pope.”
In December 2014, Francis said that he wanted to visit Iraq, but that this was not possible at that time in light of the security situation.
Also in 2014, when Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani visited Francis, he noted that the pope had agreed to visit the KRG, given the large number of displaced Christians it hosts.
Ahmad Jamal, a spokesman for the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, told Al-Monitor over the phone, “Pope Francis is invited to visit Iraq, and we reiterate this invitation at every opportunity we get when meeting Vatican officials. The pope has not once rejected our invitation, and he will visit us at the earliest appropriate opportunity.”
He added, “The pope’s visit would reflect the Vatican’s support in urging the international community to help Iraq eliminate the terrorism that killed many and forced others into displacement, especially the Christians of Mosul, which had been occupied by IS since June 2014. Iraq hopes the Vatican will set a date for the visit as soon as possible, and the Iraqi Foreign Ministry will continue its efforts to make this visit happen.”
A spokesman for the prime minister’s office, Saad al-Hadithi, told Al-Monitor, “The government is looking forward to the pope's visiting Iraq soon because it would deepen the relationship between Iraq and the Vatican on the one hand, and would be a great support for Iraq’s war against IS on the other.”
This visit has yet to be set, despite many invitations by several officials over the years, including Chaldean Patriarch Mar Louis Raphael I Sako, who said in November 2011, “We really wish our beloved Pope Francis would visit Iraq.”
The situation in Iraq and the Middle East has captured the attention of religious authorities at the Vatican; this is particularly the case as a result of the acts of violence that have affected the Christians since 2003 in Iraq.
The Vatican expressed opposition to the first Gulf War that followed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Pope Saint John Paul II wrote a letter to then-President Saddam Hussein in 1991, urging him to “take courageous steps to withdraw from Kuwait.”
In February 2011, news surfaced about a potential visit to Ur by Pope Benedict XVI, and the Ministry of Tourism approached parliament to ensure the success of preparations for this visit.
In November 2013, Iraq and the Vatican agreed on the need to build advanced relations of mutual respect in order to confront the common challenges posed by extremism and terrorism.
Although the pope has not yet visited Iraq, a delegation from the Vatican held Mass on Dec.14, 2013, in the city of Ur, headed by Monsignor Andreatta, the head of the Vatican pilgrimage organization, during which he called on people to perform a pilgrimage to the ancient city of Ur.
On Nov. 23, Francis prayed for the Iraqi people suffering under war and expressed his hope that peace would prevail. “I voice my solidarity with the people and Iraq and the residents of Mosul in particular,” he said. IS invaded Mosul in June 2014 and has controlled it ever since, resulting in the displacement of its residents, particularly Christians.
On Nov. 17, Francis brought up the Christian “martyrs” in Iraq and Syria who have remained faithful and sacrificed their lives for their religion.
The relationship between Iraq and the Vatican is heading toward further cooperation. The new papal ambassador in Iraq, Alberto Ortega Martin, met with Iraqi President Fuad Masum on Nov. 19, 2015, and called for reopening Christian schools in Iraq.
Meanwhile, a member of Dhi Qar’s provincial council, Dakhel Radi, told Al-Monitor, “If Pope Francis visits the city of Ur, it will most definitely turn into an international tourist attraction, especially after IS’ imminent defeat and its elimination from Iraq.”
Journalist Walid al-Tai told Al-Monitor, “The people of Dhi Qar hope the pope's visit can finally happen because it would give the impression that Iraq is a safe country, and thus Christians from all over the world could visit the city of Ur, without having any security concerns, in light of the prevailing terrorism in several [other] countries in the Middle East.”