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How the Vatican has prepared the pope's historic trip to Iraq

Loup Besmond de Senneville - La Croix International - Wed, Mar 3rd 2021

How the Vatican has prepared the pope's historic trip to Iraq "La Croix" takes a behind-the-scenes look at the preparations for the March 5-8 papal visit to the Land of Abraham

Preparation for the visit of Pope Francis to Karakoch in Iraq. (Photo by ZAID AL-OBEIDI/AFP)

Intense preparations for Pope Francis' historic visit to Iraq have been underway for several months, despite continued uncertainty about the safety and feasibility of the trip. But, unless there is a last-minute change of events, the 84-year-old Francis will leave this Friday (March 5) to become the first pope in history to visit this war-ravaged Middle Eastern country. He will spend just over three days in a country that no foreign head of state has toured for years. The pope is scheduled to visit several places including Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul, Karakoch, the Plain of Ur and the city of Najaf.

When the papal trip was announced last December 2, many were surprised. But, in fact, it has been in the planning stages for much longer.Since his election to the papacy in March 2013, Francis has never hidden his desire to visit Iraq, a hoped-for journey that his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, were denied.Memos at the end of 2019As early as the end of 2019, before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vatican nunciature in Iraq had already carried out a series of informal consultations with key players on the ground in the country.

According to La Croix's sources, several memos had been compiled by the nunciature, outlining possible steps or suggestions for meetings in the event that Francis could visit.But then the pandemic hit in February 2020 and it froze any immediate prospect of a papal trip.

Then in May, the Vatican canceled the pope's planned visit to Malta.And the priest who was in charge of organizing papal journeys was appointed to the Holy See's nunciature in Lisbon, while his two assistants were reassigned to other Vatican offices.

An "exploratory team" in November. But at the end of last autumn, there was some new movement on the papal travel front. At Francis' urging, the Vatican Secretariat of State sent a small "exploratory team" to Iraq in the fall to assess the possibility for an upcoming trip and especially to put together an itinerary, La Croix learned.The team was led by Mgr. Dieudonné Datonou, a Beninese diplomat from the Roman Curia. He went to Baghdad and Mosul in particular.With utmost discretion, these first Vatican emissaries also went to Najaf, the Iraqi Shia holy city, to evaluate the possibility of a meeting with Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani.

But the ayatollah's aides did not fully understand who the members of the Vatican team were, and Holy See officials didn't make it clear to them that a meeting with the pope was at stake.When the Vatican announced the pope's upcoming visit to Iraq a few weeks later, Najaf was not on the itinerary.

Because they were unable to see al-Sistani's people on their earlier visit to Najaf, the Vatican experts concluded that a meeting with the ayatollah was not possible and therefore excluded this possibility from their plans.

Tensions between Baghdad and Rome

When those in Najaf who were close to the ayatollah discovered that no meeting was planned, they picked up the phone in amazement and called Iraqi Catholic officials with whom they were in regular contact.

For them, it was unthinkable that the pope could visit Iraq without meeting al-Sistani.And they managed to change the Vatican's plans.The meeting was then made official by the Chaldean Patriarch (Cardinal) Louis Raphaël I Sako at a press conference in Paris at the end of January.

It must be said that on the ground, the cardinal quickly established himself as the main interlocutor for the nunciature and the Iraqi Foreign Ministry in organizing Francis' visit.Sako put a lot of pressure on Francis to visit Iraq to the point of annoying many at the Vatican. Some officials felt that the Iraqi cardinal "twisted their arm," thus exerting exaggerated pressure on the program.

Throughout the preparation for the trip, the organizers had to take into account the particularly serious health and security risks in Iraq.In recent days, a delegation of 14 people, all from the Vatican, finalized the preparations, particularly in terms of logistics.Several members of the Vatican gendarmerie are currently present in Iraq to coordinate security in collaboration with the Iraqi security forces.Some 65 people in the papal entourage and another 75 journalists will all be traveling on the papal plane. Everyone of them has been vaccinated.

But Francis and his aides are still concerned about putting local crowds in jeopardy, both in terms of their health and their security.You may also likeReligionWorker priests: the next generation.

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