Pope Francis in Iraq: 14 Not-to-Miss Moments From the Historic Trip
‘Today, I can see at first hand that the Church in Iraq is alive, that Christ is alive and at work in this, his holy and faithful people.’ — Pope Francis
Pope Francis has returned from his apostolic journey to Iraq but the reverberations from the historic visit are still being felt. Meeting and speaking directly to Iraqi Christians who have been severely persecuted for their faith, the Holy Father offered words of encouragement and inspiration traveling amid a global pandemic, visiting places that hold the deepest roots of our Christian faith. Here are 15 images that bring the journey to life.
1. Pope Francis landed in Iraq on March 5. He was greeted by a young Iraqi boy and girl offering him flowers when he first arrived at the presidential palace.
2. Hundreds of Iraqis gathered hoping to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis on his way to the cathedral on his first day in Iraq where he addressed Iraqi authorities, civilians, and the country's diplomatic corps. One group told EWTN News Nightly correspondent Colm Flynn, "It's always been our dream to meet Pope Francis."
3. A historic meeting between Pope Francis and the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani took place in Najaf, Iraq, March 6. On his flight back home to Rome Monday, Pope Francis said that the country's top Shiite cleric is a “humble and wise man,” and their meeting had a “universal message” about the importance of fraternity. He also described the encounter with al-Sistani as “very respectful,” adding that he felt honored that the 90-year-old Shiite cleric rose to greet him twice, a thing he ordinarily does not do.
During his in-flight papal presser en route back to Rome, Pope Francis further reflected on the encounter adding, "Ayatollah al-Sistani has a phrase which I expect to remember well. Every man... men are either brothers for religion or equals for creation. And fraternity is equality, but beneath equality we cannot go. I believe it is also a cultural path."
4. Speaking at the Plain of Ur, the ancient site believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, the pope emphasized the shared heritage of Christians, Muslims and Jews. As soon as theinterreligious meeting finished, two Muslims knelt and prayed to the east.
5. Abdullah Kurdi was one of the thousands of people in the crowd at the pope’s stadium Mass in Erbil, Iraq on March 7. Kurdi was one of only four people to survive after a dinghy carrying 16 refugees making the perilous journey from Turkey to the Greek Island of Kos capsized.
The haunting photo of his son, Alan Kurdi, made headlines around the world at the time in 2015. The photo showed the three-year-old’s tiny body laying face down on a Turkish beach after he drowned trying to cross the Aegean Sea. His other son Ghalib and his wife, Rehanna, also died in the shipwreck.
In the chance encounter between Kurdi and the Holy Father, Pope Francis tried to comfort the man still stricken with grief. According to a statement from the Holy See Press Office, “The pope spent a long time with him and with the help of the interpreter he was able to listen to his father's pain for the loss of his family and to express his profound participation and that of the Lord in the suffering of man,” it said.
6. Pope Francis met Catholic leaders, including Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph Younan and Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphaël Sako, at the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, the site of a terribly tragic event in 2010 that claimed the lives of nearly 50 Catholics in a terror attack.
When the cathedral was restored after the attack, a red carpet was placed down the center aisle in memory of the blood shed at the site.
Remembering all victims of violence and persecution, regardless of religion, Pope Francis said that the deaths of the 48 Servants of God killed in 2010 were “a powerful reminder that inciting war, hateful attitudes, violence or the shedding of blood are incompatible with authentic religious teachings.”
The attack at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation remains one of the single deadliest assaults against Christians in Iraq since the start of the war in 2003.
7. Pope Francis arrrives at Erbil Airport, Iraq, March 7, 2021. Two local children offer the Holy Father flowers.
8. Pope Francis offered a prayer of suffrage for the victims of the war in Mosul March 7 at Hosh al-Bieaa (Church square). In his prayer, the pope referred to the city’s Al-Nouri Mosque, where on June 29, 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a caliphate, known as the Islamic State, spanning Iraq and Syria.
Pope Francis released a dove after praying for the victims of war in Mosul.
9. The pope prayed the Sunday Angelus on March 7 with Christians at a church in Bakhdida, also known as Qaraqosh, a town 20 miles southeast of Mosul occupied by ISIS from 2014 to 2016.
“Our gathering here today shows that terrorism and death never have the last word. The last word belongs to God and to his Son, the conqueror of sin and death,” Pope Francis said in the Syriac Catholic Immaculate Conception Church.
“Even amid the ravages of terrorism and war, we can see, with the eyes of faith, the triumph of life over death.”
10. Pope Francis said he was moved by the testimonies shared of Christians from the region once devastated by the Islamic State, particularly that of Doha Sabah Abdallah.
“On the morning of August 6, 2014, the city of Bakhdida was awakened by the din of the bombing. We all knew that ISIS was upon us, and that three weeks earlier it had invaded the towns and villages of the Yazidis and treated them with cruelty. So we fled the city, leaving our homes; after two or three days we returned, supported by our strong faith and in the conviction that, being Christians, we are ready for martyrdom,” she said.
“That morning we were busy with the usual things and the children were playing in front of our houses, when an accident happened that forced us to go out. I heard a mortar shell and ran out of the house. The children's voices fell silent as the screams of the adults increased. They informed me of the death of my son and his cousin, and of the young neighbor who was preparing for marriage.”
The Iraqi woman spoke of courage anchored in her strong Catholic faith: “Our strength undoubtedly comes from our faith in the Resurrection, a source of hope. My faith tells me that my children are in the arms of Jesus Christ our Lord. And we, the survivors, try to forgive the aggressor, because our Master Jesus has forgiven his executioners. By imitating him in our sufferings, we testify that love is stronger than everything.”
11. A beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary that had been desecrated by the Islamic State was on display during Pope Francis’ Mass in Erbil on Sunday. Near him stood a restored Marian statue vandalized by the Islamic State during its occupation of villages in the Nineveh Plains from 2014 to 2017. The statue’s hands hung from sockets in a reminder of its mutilation.
Pope Francis blessed the statue in Erbil.
12. Speaking March 7 to ACI Prensa, Fr. Thabet Habeb, the pastor of St. Adday, recalled that when he first saw the image of the beheaded Virgin he experienced “a very sad feeling, because I saw my church like this, along with everything else. We prayed before this Virgin for many years and it was destroyed. It was something very important for the parish, for our church.”
The priest said the statue “will return to Karemlesh and will be in our church upon our return.”
Fr. Habeb hopes that a fruit of the Holy Father's visit to Iraq will be that the government and the world would look at "this martyr Church, which must be aided so it can continue to bring the Gospel."
13. Speaking to the thousands of Iraqis gathered in Erbil, Pope Francis said Jesus alone "has the power to conquer our evils, to heal our diseases, to rebuild the temple of our heart."
14. Pope Francis returned a historic Aramaic prayer manuscript which was restored after the Islamic State desecrated the Catholic church where it was once held.
With the origins of the manuscript dating back to the 14th and 15th century, the book contains liturgical prayers in Aramaic for the season of Easter in the Syriac tradition.
The manuscript was formerly kept in the Great Al-Tahira Immaculate Conception Church in Bakhdida, also known as Qaraqosh. The Syriac Catholic church was plundered and set on fire when the Islamic State had control of the town from 2014 to 2016.
We pray that the seeds planted during this historic trip will grow and nurture the hearts of the Iraqi Christians ... and may we all learn from their unwavering faith amid such persecution.