12/07/2020, 16.40
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Pope to visit Iraq in March 2021

The announcement says that Francis will go to Baghdad, the plain of Ur, which is linked to the memory of Abraham, to the cities of Erbil and Mosul as well as Qaraqosh in the plain of Nineveh. Francis will thus make the visit that John Paul II was unable to make.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) – Pope Francis will travel to Iraq next year. The Holy See Press Office director Matteo Bruni made the announcement today.

Following the invitation of the Republic of Iraq and of the local Catholic Church, Pope Francis will make an Apostolic Journey to Iraq on 5-8 March 2021. The pontiff will visit Baghdad, the plain of Ur, linked to the memory of Abraham, the city of Erbil, as well as Mosul and Qaraqosh in the plain of Nineveh.

Francis will undertake the journey that John Paul II was unable to make in 1999. Ur of the Chaldees was supposed to be the first of three stages – the other two were the Sinai and Jerusalem – in a journey along the path of history before the 2000 Jubilee, said in 2014 Card Giovanni Battista Re, who at the time was sostituto (substitute) for general affairs of the Vatican's Secretariat of State.

Pope John Paul II was able to visit the Sinai and Jerusalem (pictured) in February and March 2000, but not Ur of the Chaldees. The site, located in southern Iraq, is the place where, according to the Bible story, Abraham heard the voice of God and left. Today, ancient Ur is now nothing more than a collection of archaeological remains.

This first stage, which Pope John Paul II “dreamed and desired”, was however very difficult to do at that time, coming as it did a few years after the First Gulf War, which ended with the liberation of Kuwait.

In those years, Iraq was under a UN embargo for the refusal of Saddam Hussein's government to allow inspectors to see his alleged nuclear and chemical weapons programmes. No plane could travel to the country.

Long and complex negotiations for the papal trip were undertaken, which also involved the UN. The United States was against it because it saw it as a form of support for the Iraqi regime, which was initially in favour.

Eventually, Saddam Hussein's ambassador to the Vatican announced on 9 December 1999 that given Iraq’s “anomalous situation, the Pope's trip had to be postponed until circumstances permitted,” Card Re said.

“Why did Saddam change his mind?” the cardinal wonders. “Was he afraid of not being able to control the internal situation, due to the suffering of the population resulting from the economic difficulties caused by the embargo imposed by the United Nations? Was he afraid that the Pope’s visit to Iraq might prompt him to accept the humiliation of UN inspections to verify the presence of secret chemical weapons and nuclear programme? Was he deterred by some Muslim religious leader?

“These are questions that cannot be answered, because the ambassador merely said that President Saddam did not intend to cancel the visit, but only postpone it.” Then 2000 came and nothing was done. The visit to Ur was only the object of a service in St Peter's Basilica. (FP)

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