Pope Francis departed from Rome on Friday morning for a three-day visit to Iraq, undeterred by suggestions that his trip might fuel a surge in coronavirus cases, undaunted by the precarious security situation and committed to offering support to a Christian community decimated by years of war.
It’s the first trip Francis has embarked on since the pandemic swept the world and the first time a head of the Roman Catholic Church is believed to have visited the country.
The journey promises to be as rich in symbolism as it is fraught with risk.
In an area known as the cradle of civilization, the modern history of Mesopotamia — now present-day Iraq — has endured lasting hardship: three decades of despotic rule, followed by two decades of war and a wave of carnage unleashed by the Islamic State.
Once a rich tapestry of faiths, Iraq has been hallowed out as orthodoxies hardened. Its Jews are almost completely gone, and its Christian community grows smaller every year. About one million have fled since the 2003 United States-led invasion. An estimated 500,000 remain.
That backdrop makes the pope’s visit on Saturday to the ancient city of Ur — traditionally held to be the birthplace of Abraham, who is revered by Muslims, Jews and Christians alike — all the more powerful.
To that end, his trip carries a motto from the Gospel of Matthew: “You are all brothers.”
But the pope’s agenda also casts a spotlight on the terrible toll wrought when divisions harden and violence takes over.
On Friday evening he will meet with priests, bishops and others at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad. Just over a decade ago, the church came under assault when attackers unleashed fusillade of grenades, bullets and suicide vests. At least 58 people were killed in the assault, which was carried out by an affiliate of Al Qaeda.
It was far from the deadliest massacre in the country, where tens of thousands of Muslims have died in war and sectarian fighting, but the attack tore at the heart of the Christian community.
The Rev. Meyassr al-Qasboutros, a priest who survived the assault, told the New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid that his cousin, Wassim Sabih, was one of the two priests killed.
Father Sabih, according to survivors, was pushed to the ground as he grasped a crucifix and pleaded with the gunmen to spare the worshipers.
He was then killed.
“We must die here,” Father Qasboutros told Mr. Shadid a decade ago. “We can’t leave this country.”
Pope Francis made it clear that after Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI had to scuttle plans to visit the remaining Christians in the country, he would not cancel his own trip.
An image of Francis is painted on the blast walls that now ring Our Lady of Salvation.
“I ask that you accompany this apostolic trip with prayer so that it can occur in the best way possible, bear the hoped-for fruit,” he said before departing Rome. “The Iraqi people await us.”
On a bus going through the fourth of about 15 checkpoints they would pass through on their way to the Baghdad International Airport on Friday, Safa al-Abbia said that for him and other young Christians attending the arrival ceremony for Pope Francis in Iraq, it was hard to believe the visit was really happening.
It isn’t the first time Mr. Abbia, 29, will have seen the pope. Three years ago, as a leader of young Christians, he visited the Vatican.
“He said, ‘I promise you I will visit Iraq,’” said Mr. Abbia, a dentist. “At that time, I didn’t believe it. I thought it was impossible.”
About 1,000 Christians and twice as many Muslim Iraqis are expected at the airport ceremony. The road to the airport, adorned by Vatican and Iraqi flags, is lined with armored vehicles with SWAT teams in Iraq’s biggest security operation in years.
Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, has been locked down for the pope’s three-day visit, with all but authorized vehicle traffic banned. Schools and government offices are closed.
Mr. Abbia said that with the pope’s visit, it felt as if Iraqi young people were being seen.
“Two years ago in Iraq, there was a revolution,” he said, using the word for the protest movement by young Iraqis that brought down the previous government before being crushed by security forces. “The first thing is to live in dignity, and the young people especially, they feel they don’t have the right to live in dignity in their country. So they are emigrating.”
Francis has expressed concern over the killings of unarmed protesters in Iraq and has frequently called for Iraqis and others to be able to live in dignity — including holding jobs and having access to public services.
Outside the airport, hundreds of the faithful lined the roads, holding flags and eager to wave as the pope passed by.
His drive to the presidential palace in Baghdad, about 20 minutes away, takes him past the site of a U.S. drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani — an Iranian military leader — and a senior Iraqi security official a year ago.
The wreckage of one of the vehicles that was hit and the shrapnel-marked walls on the airport road have been preserved by Iraq’s government as a monument honoring the dead and in criticism of the attack.
“Iraq is not 100 percent secure, but the government is giving it special attention,” Mr. Abbia said of the pope’s visit. “All the world’s eyes are on us.”
After more than a year cooped up behind the Vatican walls, Francis travels to Baghdad on Friday at a tense time in the pandemic, sending a message that flies in the face of many public health guidelines.
In his weekly address on Wednesday, the pope said he would not be deterred.
“I ask that you accompany this apostolic trip with prayer so that it can occur in the best way possible, bear the hoped-for fruit,” he said. “The Iraqi people await us.”
Francis, who was vaccinated in mid-January, has urged wealthy countries to give vaccine doses to poorer ones, and called a refusal to vaccinate “suicidal.”
The pope’s entourage has also been inoculated.
The possibility that Francis, who is 84, might inadvertently endanger an Iraqi population with practically no access to vaccines is not lost on his allies back in Rome.
“There is this concern that the pope’s visit not put the people’s health at risk — this is evident,” said the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest and close ally of Francis. “There is an awareness of the problem.”
The Vatican insists that the trip will be a safe, socially distanced and sober visit devoid of the usual fanfare. A Vatican spokesman also played down the number of cases in Iraq when reporters asked how Francis could justify not delaying the trip.
Supporters worry that the pope’s goals for the visit could be eclipsed by any indication that he is contributing to the spread of the coronavirus by staging events where social distancing is hard to enforce.