Pope Francis will make a historic visit to Iraq in March in what will be the first trip by a pontiff to the country and will also be his first Apostolic Journey since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to Vatican News, the Director of the Holy See Press Office, Matteo Bruni, made the announcement yesterday, noting that the Pope had been officially invited by Iraq's President Barham Salih and the local Catholic Church.
"The programme of the journey will be made known in due course, and will take into consideration the evolution of the worldwide health emergency," Bruni said.
The visit is said to be scheduled between 5-8 March and will cover four Iraqi provinces, the Press Office stated.
"He 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."
His Holiness the Pope will visit Iraq in March 2021. The journey of Pope Francis to Mesopotamia- cradle of civilization, birthplace of Abraham, father of the faithful- will be a message of peace to Iraqis of all religions & serve to affirm our common values of justice & dignity
— Barham Salih (@BarhamSalih) December 7, 2020
Salih is believed to have extended the invitation in July last year, hoping it would help heal the country after years of conflict. Although the Pope had intended to make the visit this year, his plans were initially changed due to security concerns and then by the threat of the pandemic.
Francis' predecessor Pope St John Paul II had also wanted to visit Iraq and its ancient city of Ur, long believed to be the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham. The trio was to be the first leg of a three-step pilgrimage along with Egypt and Israel in 1999. However the trip never materialised following a breakdown in talks with former leader Saddam Hussein.
Iraq's Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, welcomed the announcement and believes the Pope's visit will help uplift the country as it faces not only the pandemic but also political and economic challenges. "His Holiness will come to visit us in Iraq to bring us his support and also a word of hope," he is quoted as saying.