Warmth and Welcome of the Iraqi People: A Journalist’s-Eye View of the Pope’s Historic Journey
An offering of friendship and welcome
While Pope Francis was speaking inside the Church of the Immaculate Conception in the town of Qaraqosh, I decided to quietly slip out a side door and onto the street. To my surprise, right in front of me, was the Pope’s car surrounded by heavily armed officers and security personnel. I realized straightaway that I was somewhere I probably shouldn’t be and at any moment I would be apprehended and taken back into the press room.
But I couldn’t resist the urge to take some pictures, and as I moved closer I saw one of the army men move toward me. “I was done!” I thought. And as I started to bumble to try and justify why I should be there, I looked down to see him holding a tray of tea and gesturing for me to take a cup. I was blown away. I quickly took a picture that would be the picture that summed up my experience in Iraq while covering this papal trip for EWTN News.
When I used to think of Iraq, the images that would spring to mind were of war, destruction and brutality. I associated the country with pain and suffering and knew it was a place I would probably never visit. What would bring me to such a dangerous land?
These thoughts were in my mind as I touched down in Baghdad March 5, flying on board the papal plane with Pope Francis.
Over the next three days, we traveled to cities across Iraq, following the Holy Father and bringing the news of who he was meeting and what he was saying to the world. The phrase “historic trip” has become somewhat of a cliché, but I truly got the sense that Pope Francis was making a journey that would go down in history and perhaps could be his legacy trip.
But, as struck as I was by the many incredible moments Pope Francis had on his journey — standing among the rubble and ruins in Mosul, listening to the harrowing testimonies of ISIS survivors, greeting children with special needs — it was the sheer warmth and welcome of the Iraqi people — that I had really not anticipated — that particularly moved me.
That moment with the army man offering me, a stranger, tea, was something the crew and I would encounter again and again on this journey. His gesture was symbolic of the pride Iraqi people take in their hospitality and welcoming of a stranger. For me, it also represented the sharp contrast between my preconceived ideas of what I thought Iraq and Iraqi people would be like and the reality of what we encountered. Yes, the image of a soldier holding a machine gun and ammunition was intimidating, but the other hand held out an offering of friendship and welcome.
I tweeted the picture and couldn’t believe the reaction. It quickly went viral, and I was inundated with messages from ordinary Iraqi people from all over the country, both Muslims and Christians:
“Welcome to our country; we are your friends.”
“You are always welcome in Iraq; this is your second home.”
I could not keep up with the messages coming in, and what struck me was how heartfelt and genuine they all seemed. “Thank you for showing a different side to my country” was something I heard again and again.
It made me realize that for years the only image of Iraq being portrayed to the world was that image of war and terror, the Iraq I had expected to find. But, instead, I discovered an incredibly warm and kind people who seemed to have been cast into the shadows. Now, with Pope Francis’ visit, the spotlight was on their country for a very different reason, and the Iraqi people were relishing in it. It almost felt like, after being submerged for so long, they were finally breaking the surface for a gasp of air. Their beloved nation, Iraq, was being shown around the world in light of peace and fraternity.
On the last morning of our trip, I must admit there was a sadness in me as our bus took the press corps to the airport. After the initial anxiety about security concerns, and the caution that came with it, I felt like we were just starting to get to know some of the people we encountered and beginning to make a real connection.
My EWTN producer, Alexey Gotovskiy, was sitting at the front of the bus beside the driver. I sat right behind them and watched as Alexey attempted to speak Arabic, and the driver attempted to speak English. At one point, Alexey pointed to the diver’s ring and complimented it. It was a beautiful ornate ring with a large red stone at the center. As the bus pulled up and parked outside the airport, the bus driver proceeded to remove his ring and placed it in the hand of Alexey. He gestured with his other hand, “this is a gift from me to you.” Alexey was speechless at this beautiful offering, before graciously declining and thanking him profusely.
So, to the Iraqi army man who offered me tea, to the bus driver who offered Alexey his ring, and to all the wonderful people we met who showed us such warmth and kindness: It touched my heart, and I want to say a sincere thank you. God Bless Iraq.