ROME: Pope Francis sent a message of hope and peace on Wednesday to the people of Iraq, and a message of defiance to terrorists trying to rip the country apart.
After 10 rockets landed on an air base that hosts US, coalition and Iraqi forces, Francis vowed that the first papal visit to Iraq would begin on Friday as planned.
“The day after tomorrow, God willing, I will go to Iraq for a three-day pilgrimage. For a long time I have wanted to meet these people who have suffered so much,” the pope told his weekly audience in the Vatican.
“The Iraqi people await me. They also waited for St. John Paul II but he was forbidden to go. One can’t disappoint a people a second time. Let us pray that this journey will be successful.” A planned trip in 2000 by Pope John Paul II was cancelled by Saddam Hussein.
The visit is going ahead despite Wednesday’s attack on Al-Asad air base in Iraq’s western desert, during which a US civilian contractor died from a heart attack while sheltering from rockets.
Pope Francis is not scheduled to visit that part of the country, but he will spend time in Baghdad and Irbil, both hit by rocket attacks last month. He will also visit the former Daesh stronghold of Mosul, where churches still bear the signs of conflict.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said the pope may travel by armored vehicle, and will not be meeting crowds except for Mass at Irbil stadium on Sunday, where 10,000 people are expected.
“This is a particular situation. That’s why transport will be in a closed vehicle, meaning it will be difficult to see the pope on the street,” Bruni said. “There will be a number of meetings, but none will be more than a few hundred people.”
Francis, 84, will take part in a historic meeting on Saturday with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, 90, at the powerful Shiite cleric’s home in Najaf. Sistani is one of the most important figures in Shiite Islam, both within Iraq and beyond. He commands a vast following among Iraq’s Shiite majority and wields considerable influence over politics and public opinion.
The pope said: “Together with other religious leaders, in the birthplace of Abraham we’ll also move another step forward in the brotherhood of believers. I ask you to accompany this apostolic journey with your prayers so that it may take place in the best possible way and bear the hoped-for fruits.”
Pope Francis has long campaigned for inter-religious dialogue, peace and tolerance. Two years ago in Abu Dhabi, he met Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, grand imam of Al-Azhar, the center of Sunni Muslim learning. The two religious leaders signed a document on “human fraternity for world peace” and made a joint appeal for freedom of belief.