Francis Begins Visit to Iraq, in ‘Duty to a Land Martyred’

BAGHDAD — Pope Francis made an audacious return to the world stage in the midst of the pandemic on Friday when he became the first leader of the Roman Catholic church to visit Iraq, seeking to help heal a nation uniquely wounded by violent sectarianism, foreign adventurism and the persecution of minority populations, including his own Christian flock.

“I’m happy to travel again,” Francis, who has been vaccinated against the coronavirus, said after taking off his blue surgical mask to address reporters on the papal plane. The 84-year-old pontiff, who suffers from sciatica, was limping noticeably as he walked off the plane and past a line of young people singing in languages including Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

By choosing Iraq and its war-torn — and now Covid-threatened — lands as his first destination, Francis plunged directly into the issues of war and peace, poverty, and religious strife in an ancient and biblical land. His trip is explicitly designed to deepen ties to Shiite Muslims and encourage a decimated Christian population.

Francis instead seemed determined to go no matter what on a trip that on Friday he called “long-awaited and desired.” To highlight and touch the wounds of his church, Francis went on Friday afternoon to Our Lady of Salvation, a Syriac Catholic church where Islamic militants staged a harrowing attack in 2010, slaughtering 58 people in what was the worst atrocity against Iraqi Christians since the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003.

“Four people from ISIS came in here, one from that side, another this way,” said Qais Michael Bernard, 58, who acted as an usher at the church on Friday. After so many Christians had left Baghdad and the country since then, he welcomed the pope’s presence. “It’s good,” he said. “Makes people stay here.”

Light streamed in through the colored stripes of stained glass, falling on the masked priests, nuns and seminarians, distanced three to a pew. As the pope walked in, making the sign of the cross, the church erupted in ululations and traditional music. “The pope has come, the pope has come!” some of them chanted.

Francis limped down the red-carpeted central nave, and took a seat on a wooden throne before the altar. There, as a woman wept quietly in a back pew, he listened to local bishops remind him of the 2010 massacre and the wider persecution of Christians in the country.

But Francis needed no reminding.

“We are gathered in this Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, hallowed by the blood of our brothers and sisters who here paid the ultimate price,” Francis said, under a large framed photograph of one of the young priests killed in the attack. He added, “Their deaths are a powerful reminder that inciting war, hateful attitudes, violence or the shedding of blood are incompatible with authentic religious teachings.”

Earlier in the day, speaking at the presidential palace, Francis recalled that “Iraq has suffered the disastrous effects of wars, the scourge of terrorism and sectarian conflicts often grounded in a fundamentalism incapable of accepting the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups.”

He added, “How much we have prayed in these years for peace in Iraq!”

On arrival at the palace, Francis stood outside with Iraqi President Barham Salih as a marching band played. He then went inside and acknowledged in a speech that his visit coincided with the world “trying to emerge from the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The pope called for an equitable distribution of vaccines to countries already scarred by “fragility and instability.” A vaccination program began just this week in Iraq, where social distancing restrictions are largely ignored.

Francis recalled to Iraq’s leaders the “age-old presence of Christians in this land,” which traces back to nearly the beginning of the faith, and suggested that their protection and engagement in the country’s future were indicators of the health of Iraq’s democracy.

Christianity took root in the region within decades of the death of Jesus. There are more than a dozen Christian sects throughout Iraq.

On Saturday, Francis will achieve an unrealized dream of Pope John Paul II, praying at a major interreligious event in Ur, the ancient city that tradition holds was the birthplace of Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Outreach to Islam is central to Francis’ mission, but so is heartening Christians who have endured so much.

The Rev. Thabet Almako, a priest at the St. Adday church in the town of Karamles, which was overrun by the Islamic State, said he and about 25 members of his church choir would take a bus together to Mosul, where they planned to sing, at a distance, for the pope. About 90 Christians from his town hoped to attend an open-air Mass with about 5,000 faithful in Erbil on Sunday.

“He will push to make progress,” Father Almako said, noting that many of the people in the area, including his own family, had left the country. He said he hoped that the arrival of the pope would reverse that trend and “attract the people back.”

“We hope the reconstruction will be completed in our towns, that the pope’s visit will change the situation all around Iraq,” he said.

In the mid-20th century, Christians made up about ten percent of the Iraqi population.

The American invasion, which the Vatican strongly opposed, proved disastrous for the country’s Christians. (“I come as a penitent,” Francis said Friday. “Asking forgiveness of heaven and my brothers and sisters for so much destruction and cruelty.”)

Between 2003 and 2010, more than half of Iraq’s Christians left the country, leaving about 500,000 from a high of as possibly many as 1.4 million.

In 2014, the expansion of the Islamic State, or ISIS, represented a new and terrifying threat to Christians and other minorities. In Mosul, ISIS marked the homes of Christians and wrote “Property of the Islamic State of Iraq.” They required Christians to either convert to Islam or pay a special tax and then expelled them from the city altogether.

Iraq’s Christians largely sought safe haven in the Kurdish capitol, Erbil, where they lived for months in tents in church courtyards and makeshift shelters in construction sites. Many have not returned to the communities they fled, in the country’s north amid the flat farmlands of the Nineveh Plans east of Mosul.

The displaced Christians, along with other Iraqis, have had trouble making a living in the country’s devastated economy. In despair over a lack of future for their families, hundreds of thousands have emigrated to the United States, Canada and other Western countries. Thousands more remain in limbo in Turkey and Jordan, waiting to be resettled.

Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest and close ally of Francis who was traveling with the pope, said the visit was clearly one of solidarity with persecuted Christians, but also with the objective to convince the faithful “not to abandon the country.”

Or to disappear, as Christians today constitute little more than one percent of the population.

“Of course this is our fear,” said the Rev. Karam Qasha, a priest in Iraq, who added that just seeing the pope praying with Christians in Iraq would show the Muslim majority “we are here.”

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In Pictures: Pope Francis in Iraq

Pope John Paul II had to cancel plans to visit Iraq at the turn of this century as escalating tensions with the United States undermined negotiations with Saddam Hussein for a papal visit. Pope Benedict XVI had to cancel his plans because of security concerns.

And almost until the moment he boarded the papal plane in Rome en route to Baghdad on Friday, the Vatican cautioned that the visit by Pope Francis could be called off at any time.

But despite concerns about the coronavirus and a precarious security situation — with a military base in northern Iraq targeted by a missile strike two days before his scheduled departure — Francis held firm in his desire to visit the long-suffering and fading Christian community in the war-torn nation.

Francis has set an ambitious agenda that will take him from the Plains of Nineveh, where Christianity traces its roots back about 2,000 years, to the northern region of Kurdistan, where his three-day trip culminates on Sunday evening with an outdoor Mass for thousands at Franso Hariri soccer stadium in Erbil.

Christians waited for Pope Francis at Baghdad International Airport on Friday, above, as buses brought in other faithful, below.

Pope Francis waving to the crowd upon his arrival in Baghdad.

Outside the presidential palace on Friday in Baghdad, where Pope Francis will meet with President Barham Salih.

Francis arriving at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad. The church was the site of a 2010 Qaeda attack that accelerated an exodus of Christians from Iraq.

A poster promoting the trip of Pope Francis in Erbil, Iraq.

Preparations before the pope’s trip have been ongoing, including at Al-Tahira church in Qaraqosh, below.

Sewing the flag of Vatican City at a printing house in Erbil.

Security members from the prime minister’s office carrying out precautionary measures inside St. Joseph’s Church.

A police officer standing guard outside the Chaldean Catholic Church of St. Joseph in Baghdad.

A joint Kurdish and Christian orchestra and choir rehearsing at a stadium in the Kurdish town of Erbil on Monday.

Repairing the Grand Immaculate Church in Qaraqosh before the pope’s visit.

A piece of graffiti depicting Pope Francis on concrete walls surrounding Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad.

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Why Is Pope Francis Visiting Iraq?

[Follow our live updates on the pope’s visit to Iraq.]

Pope Francis begins a three-day whirlwind tour of Iraq on Friday, despite worries that he could draw large crowds at a moment when the coronavirus appears to be resurgent in the country.

Continuing security concerns in a nation ravaged by years of war and conflict were also not enough to deter Pope Francis from fulfilling a promise to visit one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.

Such a visit has been the dream of several popes. John Paul II intended to go in 2000, but the trip was canceled as tensions in the region mounted. Benedict XVI was also invited but couldn’t go because of the war.

Iraq’s president, Barham Salih, invited Francis to visit in July 2019, hoping it would help the country heal after years of strife.

including an assault on Wednesday. That is on top of a persistent Islamic State presence two years after the terrorist group lost the last of the territory it controlled there.

The pope will be formally welcomed by Iraq’s head of state, President Barham Salih, a Kurdish politician who previously met Francis in Rome and has made minority rights a priority.

Francis will also meet with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who came to power after the previous prime minister resigned in 2019 amid sweeping antigovernment protests.

The pope’s most highly anticipated official meeting in Iraq will be with Ayatollah Sistani. The ayatollah’s messages, delivered through a representative, carry great weight. And he has changed the course of Iraqi history on issues such as elections.

The papal meeting will be a private one at the ayatollah’s modest home in Najaf. Officials there have said they do not expect any agreement between the two to be signed.

Christianity’s roots in Iraq extend back to the first decades of the faith. The tombs of biblical figures such as Jonah and Joshua are believed to be there.

Iraq’s Christian population was once a vibrant community of various Christian rites — including Armenian, Assyrian, Chaldean, Melkite and Syriac. But it has been culled by persecution, a devastating decade of war after the U.S. invasion in 2003, and then decimation at the brutal hands of the Islamic State from 2014 to 2017.

Many of the country’s surviving Christians fled to Canada, Jordan, Turkey and the United States. For Christians, the pope’s coming to bear witness to their suffering is a powerful show of solidarity.

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In Iraq’s Christian Heartland, a Feud Over a Town’s Identity

BARTELLA, Iraq — Near the entrance to a small town in northern Iraq, a huge, artificial Christmas tree stands year-round as a symbol of the area’s centuries-old Christian character.

But just down the road, a different kind of symbol illustrates the shift underway in the town of Bartella: a poster with Iran’s Islamic revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, gazing down on images of Shiite Muslim fighters who died battling the Islamic State. Nearby, a large iron cross is surrounded by more photos of dead Iraqi fighters, their images often superimposed over pictures of Shiite shrines.

“When you enter, you don’t feel you are entering a Christian area,” said the Rev. Yacoub Saadi, a Syriac Orthodox Christian priest. “You feel you are entering Karbala or Najaf,” he said, referring to the Shiite holy cities in southern Iraq.

As Pope Francis visits Iraq this week in the first ever papal trip to the country, there are growing fears among Christians that the string of ancient Christian towns across northern Iraq are losing their traditional Christian character, and that their faith is in danger of disappearing from the Muslim-majority country.

The steady exodus of Christians that began after the U.S. invasion in 2003 has only accelerated since ISIS was driven out of Iraq in 2017. The pope’s visit is a show of solidarity with the country’s remaining Christians, whose numbers have shrunk to less than one-third of the 1.5 million who lived here in Saddam Hussein’s time.

Bartella is one of about a dozen historically Christian towns on the Nineveh Plains, where the apostle Saint Thomas is said to have converted the polytheistic population just decades after the death of Jesus. Many Christians there still speak a form of Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

In Bartella, they are now a minority, fewer than 3,000 in a town of 18,000. As in most of Iraq, Shiite Muslims predominate.

But in Bartella, there’s a demographic twist.

The majority there belong to another Iraqi minority, the Shabak, a small ethnic and linguistic group that is waging its own fight for recognition. Although most Shabak are Shiite Muslims, they have also long suffered from efforts to suppress their culture, including during the time of Saddam Hussein.

That leaves church officials in Bartella, in their effort to retain the town’s diminishing Christian identity, effectively discriminating against another marginalized group.

Worried that Christians could be squeezed out of the traditionally Christian town, the Iraqi government granted church officials the authority to approve building projects and land sales.

The church has used that power to halt development projects that could bring in more Shabaks and other non-Christians.

On the edge of town, a construction project that was to include homes, a shopping center and sports center, lies abandoned. Such a project would normally be welcomed in a region with high unemployment and a housing shortage.

“The project was stopped by the church,” said the Rev. Banham Lalo, a Catholic priest. “People from other areas will buy these houses, from Mosul and from Baghdad. It paves the way for demographic change.”

The project’s developer, Duraid Mikhael, a Christian from nearby Erbil, said he had sunk more than $200,000 into the project before he was ordered to stop in November. He said the development would have employed hundreds of workers over three years, most of them from around Bartella.

“I want to develop the Bartella area but they won’t let me work,” he said.

The divisions between the two ethnic groups can become heated and direct, unusual in a country where most officials are careful to minimize differences and to refer to Iraqis of other faiths as “our brothers.”

“The main problem is Shabak officials,” insisted Father Saadi, the Orthodox priest. “They are changing the identity of Bartella.”

The disagreement often boils down to a contest of which minority is the most disadvantaged.

“Christians ask for their rights and they call themselves oppressed but they are not,” said Saad Qado, director of the Voice of Shabak, a local radio station. “We are oppressed. They have everything.”

“I can take you to Shabak villages that don’t have clean water to drink or a hospital even,” he said. “Some of the villages don’t have schools, but no one cares about us.”

While religious conflict has a long history in Iraq, the current tensions in Bartella are rooted in the town’s capture by the Islamic State in 2014. Both Christians and Shiite Muslims there suffered under the rule of the Sunni terrorist group. Many fled.

The Shabak formed a militia that ultimately helped retake the town in 2016. By then much of it was in ruins.

Church officials say the majority of Christians have not returned.

“Many people came back after the liberation from ISIS and when they saw that their houses were burned and looted and destroyed, they decided to emigrate,” Father Lalo said.

In St. George Syriac Catholic Church, a glass case lined with white satin holds a face of the Virgin Mary with her nose broken, burned chalices and a plaster Jesus on the cross broken off at the torso, all reminders of the damage inflicted by the Islamic State.

“If anyone came to Bartella right after the liberation, he would think this city would never come back because of the level of destruction,” said Ali Iskander, a Shabak and chief of the Bartella district, the de factor mayor.

It was then that the Iraqi government, fearing that historic Christian towns could lose their identity, granted church officials in Bartella and another town, Qaraqosh, the power to regulate development. The pope is planning to visit a church in Qaraqosh on Sunday.

Shabak leaders called the special privilege for Christians unfair, saying they suffered at least as much in the fight against the Islamic State. Moreover, Mr. Qado said, it was the Shabak militia that protected Christians and other villagers from ISIS, and now they are being told they cannot buy houses here.

Mr. Iskander said that he has had trouble finding land to build a house for his family of three wives and 16 children.

“I am a mayor and I have three wives,” he said. “Don’t I deserve to live in Bartella?”

He is happy to live side-by-side with Christians. The continued existence of Christians in Bartella, he said, is “like a flower in the desert.”

But where are his rights? he asks.

“I go to Mosul, they tell you ‘you should go to your areas,’” he said. “I come here and there is no land. Where do I build a house? In the sky?”

Large families like his also represent a demographic threat to the town’s Christians.

“Christians get married and they have maybe a son and a daughter,” he said. “But the Shabak have 15 or 20 children. We have people who marry two or three wives and after a few years they become a tribe.”

Mr. Qado claimed that church officials had even barred women from giving birth at a hospital on the outskirts of town to prevent Shabak children from being issued Bartella identification documents. Church officials say the problem is that the hospital is not recognized by Iraq’s Health Ministry.

Across the street from St. George church, the sisters Amina and Mohinta Sha’ana were supervising Shabak construction workers. The sisters, who are Christian, are retired schoolteachers, and Amina Sha’ana is building a new house in a former olive grove burned by ISIS.

“This land is more precious than gold,” Amina Sha’ana said. “It is the land of my father and grandfather.”

The Shabak, she said, “are good people. But relations are complicated.”

Karam Rafael, 25, one of the few Christians who moved back to Bartella, is among a small minority of young people who do not want to leave. He and his friends scraped up the money to open a small coffee bar.

“My brother and sister are in the U.S., but when I think about emigrating my stomach hurts,” he said. “I can’t leave my traditions, churches and friends behind.”

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Your Friday Briefing

The hundreds of thousands of women at the forefront of Myanmar’s protest movement are sending a powerful rebuke to the country’s military junta.

The protesters represent striking unions of teachers, garment workers and medical workers — all sectors dominated by women. The youngest are often on the front lines, where the security forces appear to have singled them out. Three young women were among the at least 38 people killed on Wednesday, the biggest one-day toll since the Feb. 1 coup.

There are no women in the military’s senior ranks, and soldiers have systematically raped women from ethnic minorities, according to Human Rights Watch. More broadly, though, women’s roles in politics, business and manufacturing in Myanmar are growing. In elections in November, about 20 percent of candidates for the National League for Democracy, the party of the ousted civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, were women.

Lives lost: Ma Kyal Sin, 18, was one of the protesters killed on Wednesday. “She is a hero for our country,” said a close friend.

Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine to every adult in the Austrian district of Schwaz, which has been battered by a surge in infections, to determine how effective the inoculation is against the variant first found in South Africa.

The study in Austria is part of a much broader global effort to answer a crucial question as new variants emerge: Do vaccinations designed last year work against more recent mutations? If not, scientists will have to keep developing new versions of the inoculations.

Laboratory studies have shown that some vaccines that work well against earlier variants are less effective — though they still offer significant protection — against the variant known as B.1.351. It was found in South Africa in December and has become the dominant one there.

a three-day visit to Iraq today despite worries that the trip could become a superspreader event in a country where the coronavirus still rages.

The Vatican insists the trip will be safe, and the pope is planning a large Mass in a soccer stadium in the Kurdish town of Erbil. He will also very likely draw crowds to watch him pray in Qaraqosh, a town of Syriac Catholics, in the northern Nineveh Plains. Francis, 84, was vaccinated against Covid-19 in mid-January.

Such a visit has been the goal of many popes before him, who had to cancel plans because of security concerns in a nation ravaged by war. Francis accepted an invitation extended in July 2019.

Explainer: The Vatican believes the risks are outweighed by the chance to support one of the world’s oldest Christian communities. The ranks of Iraq’s Christians have dwindled to roughly a third of the 1.5 million who lived there during the final years of Saddam Hussein’s rule.

a sensational royal rupture to Oprah Winfrey, the British royal family and the self-exiled couple are maneuvering furiously before the interview is broadcast on television to try to shape the narrative.

Was Meghan the victim of a cold, unwelcoming family that cruelly isolated her after she married Harry? Or was she a Hollywood diva who mistreated her staff and triggered a breach between the family and one of its most beloved young princes?

Algeria-France relations: President Emmanuel Macron of France has taken a further step toward reconciliation by declaring that Ali Boumendjel, a leading Algerian lawyer and nationalist, did not die by suicide in 1957, as France had long claimed, but was tortured and killed by French soldiers.

Iceland: More than 18,000 earthquakes have shaken Iceland in just over a week, leading scientists to believe that a volcanic eruption could be imminent.

Tsunami warning: Thousands of people were evacuated in New Zealand on Friday after an 8.1-magnitude earthquake struck in the South Pacific, prompting officials to issue tsunami warnings for coastal areas.

Hong Kong: A senior Communist Party official announced that China’s national legislature planned to rewrite election rules in Hong Kong to ensure that the territory was run by patriots — people loyal to Beijing and the Communist Party. The congress will discuss a draft plan when it gathers for a weeklong session starting today.

A new report suggests that the bigger the meteor that hits the moon, the brighter the trail.

Gender gap: Under a proposed E.U. law, companies in Europe could be sanctioned if they fail to pay men and women the same salaries for doing the same work. Separately, a new report suggests mothers in the U.S. are going back to work — and still doing most of the parenting.

Drag kings: Once an underappreciated part of the drag world, drag kings have found more exposure during the pandemic, with pageants moving online, and amid the popularization of drag for wider audiences.

What we’re reading: This deep-dive New Yorker article on the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. It’s a chilling report on the near-future of the war-torn country.

gets the eggplant Parmesan treatment — baked with marinara sauce, mozzarella and grated Parmesan cheese until bubbling and browned.

Watch: The thoughtful documentary “Stray” uses the stray dogs of Istanbul to comment on the human condition.

Here are five tutorials for varying styles — each is a good workout.

Start your weekend with aplomb. At Home has our full collection of ideas on what to read, cook, watch and do while staying safe at home.

Melissa Kirsch spends her days thinking up activities for us to do at home in The Times’s At Home newsletter. She shared some of her own strategies for living well during an uncertain time.

Think about how I want to look back on this time. I find myself consciously trying to do things that will make me feel better about this experience in the future. That may mean reading more or cooking more or trying to be creative about the ways that I connect with other people — like writing letters or meeting people for walks in the cold. I don’t want this year to turn into a blur of Zoom chats and Netflix.

briefing@nytimes.com.

P.S.
• We’re listening to “The Daily.” Our latest episode is about how close the end of the pandemic might be.
• Here’s our Mini Crossword, and a clue: Fitting name for a hirsute guy (five letters). You can find all our puzzles here.
• Our travel writer Tariro Mzezewa joined the “Travel With Hawkeye” podcast to discuss plans for a vaccine passport.

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