ROME: Pope Francis will probably use an armor-plated car during his first trip to Iraq on March 5-8, and he will be accompanied throughout by a Vatican nurse.
“An armor-plated car is always available for the pope’s trips, and in this trip it’s very likely to be used,” Vatican press spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a briefing attended by Arab News.
The pope will use a closed car in all his visits to Iraqi cities, Bruni added, apart from Erbil stadium on Sunday, when he will use an open car and will celebrate Mass.
This papal trip “will be different from those made in the past due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bruni said.
No meetings with crowds are scheduled except for Mass in Erbil; only 10,000 faithful will be allowed there in order to respect social distancing.
This will be the pope’s first trip abroad in about 15 months due to the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent restrictions on movement. It is also the first-ever papal journey to Iraq.
He will be accompanied by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin; the prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri; and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, secretary for relations with states.
Seventy-five embedded journalists will also travel aboard the special flight that will take the leader of the Catholic Church from Rome to Baghdad — almost double the number normally allowed on a papal flight.
Parolin described the pope’s visit as a sign of his “closeness to the Catholic Church” in Iraq and to the country’s dwindling Christian communities.
“We know that the Church (in Iraq) has suffered a lot,” Parolin said. “It has lost many Christians who have left Iraq for other countries.”
Therefore, the Church needs the pope’s presence “to be encouraged and to continue her mission of witnessing Jesus Christ and the Gospel in the difficult situation in which she finds herself,” Parolin added.
The pope’s visit will also “boost the efforts that have already started to reconstruct the country,” Parolin said, adding that it will be an occasion of “interreligious dialogue, collaboration, understanding and fraternity between Christians and Muslims for the good of the country and its brighter future.”
The pope will fly to Baghdad on Friday, and will be welcomed at the airport by Iraq’s prime minister.
On Saturday, the pope will go to the city of Najaf, where he will meet Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite Muslims.
Bruni said this will be the first face-to-face meeting between a Catholic pontiff and a Shiite ayatollah.
The pope will then visit the ancient city of Ur, considered by the Bible to be Abraham’s birthplace.
On Sunday he will fly by helicopter to Mosul, which from 2014 to 2017 was the de facto capital of Daesh’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
There, Buni said, the pope will have “a moment of intimate prayer to honor the victims of this land.”
He will then fly to Qaraqosh, a Christian-majority city where in 2014, about 45,000 people were expelled by Daesh, before heading to Erbil for a mass at Franso Hariri stadium.