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.