03/02/2021, 17.36
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Pope in Iraq to meet Christians and deepen interfaith dialogue

During the three-day visit, Francis will travel to Baghdad, Najaf, Ur, Erbil, Mosul, and Qaraqosh. During his stay, he will give four speeches and deliver two homilies, an Angelus and a prayer of suffrage for war victims. On Saturday, he will meet Al-Sistani, the country's highest Shia authority.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) – Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See Press Office, held a press conference today to present Pope Francis' trip to Iraq from 5 to 8 March.

For the pontiff, the three main goals of the visit are: “meeting the Christian community, deepening the relationship between different religions,” and “meeting Iraq”.

Words like “fraternity and hope” can “sum up the upcoming trip to Iraq”, which will take place during a pandemic. “We shall have to take this into account”, starting with the people who will join the Pope on the trip.

Everyone –  the Pope, his retinue and the journalists on the Rome-Baghdad flight taking off at 7.30 am on Friday – are vaccinated against COVID-19. Those who could not do so in their own country were vaccinated by the Vatican.

During the three-day visit, Francis will travel to Baghdad, Najaf, Ur, Erbil, Mosul, and Qaraqosh. During his stay, he will give four speeches and deliver two homilies, an Angelus and a prayer of suffrage for war victims, as indicated by the “updated programme” released today by the Holy See Press Office.

This will be Pope Francis’s 33rd apostolic journey in 52 countries, the first by a pope in Iraq and the first in a Shia-majority country, hence the meeting scheduled on Saturday between Francis in Najaf and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shia religious authority in Iraq, a figure also revered in Iran.

Such a meeting was certainly not neglected in planning the visit. Pope John Paul wanted to visit Iraq  during the Jubilee year in 2000, a goal Francis reiterated on 30 October 2013, soon after his election, when he called to pray for Iraq, “hit daily by tragic episodes of violence, so that it may find its way to reconciliation and peace”.

Iraq has been the victim of violence since 2004 culminating in the attack on 31 October 2010 against the Syro-Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, where Francis will go next Friday afternoon to meet bishops, priests, men and women religious, seminarians and catechists.

According to Holy See Press Office, Iraq has about 590,000 Catholics, 19 bishops, 153 priests, 365 nuns, 20 deacons, 632 catechists, and 32 major seminarians.

The Iraqi Church runs 55 kindergartens and primary schools, four lower middle and secondary schools and nine high schools. It also has seven hospitals, six clinics, five homes for seniors and disabled, ten orphanages and nurseries, one family consultation centre and one special social education or rehabilitation centre.

The trip’s final schedule includes departure at 7.30 am on Friday from Rome with arrival in Baghdad at 2 pm, local time. After the official reception, a brief meeting with Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi will follow.

At 3 pm the official welcome ceremony will take place at the Presidential Palace in Baghdad including a courtesy visit with President Barham Ahmed Salih Qassim. This will be followed by a meeting with the authorities, representatives of civil society groups and members of the diplomatic corps.

At 3.45 pm, the Pope will give his first speech, with the second at 4.40 pm during the meeting with bishops, priests, men and women religious, seminarians and catechists at the Syro-Catholic Cathedral of “Our Lady of Salvation”.

On Saturday, 6 March, at 7.45 am the Pope will fly to Najaf to pay a courtesy visit at 9 am to Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. No official speeches are scheduled.

At 10 am the pontiff will leave by plane for Nassiriya, for the interreligious meeting in the Plain of Ur, where he will give his third speech. Returning to Baghdad at 6 pm, the Pope will celebrate Mass at St Joseph Chaldean Cathedral.

On Sunday, 7 March, at 7.15 am, Francis will leave by plane for Erbil, where he will meet with the president and prime minister of the Autonomous Region of Iraqi Kurdistan as well as local religious and civil authorities at a reception at 8.30 am.

At 9 am Francis will depart by helicopter for Mosul, where he will recite a prayer of suffrage for war victims in Hosh al-Bieaa (Church Square).

From here he will travel to Qaraqosh for a meeting with the local community with a speech at 11.30 am, followed by the Angelus – in the Church of the Immaculate Conception. At 4 pm the Holy Father will celebrate Mass at Erbil’s Franso Hariri Stadium, before returning by plane to Baghdad.

On Monday, 8 March, at 9.20 am, a farewell ceremony will be held before the Pope’s departure for Rome at 9.40 am. The papal plane is scheduled to land at 12.55 pm at Ciampino airport. (FP)

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