Pope Francis’ visit to give hope and comfort to Iraqis of all faiths

Member of Iraqi forces walks past a mural depicting Pope Francis waving next to an Iraqi national flag outside the Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Deliverance in Baghdad. (AFP)
Member of Iraqi forces walks past a mural depicting Pope Francis waving next to an Iraqi national flag outside the Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Deliverance in Baghdad. (AFP)
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Updated 06 March 2021

Pope Francis’ visit to give hope and comfort to Iraqis of all faiths

Pope Francis’ visit to give hope and comfort to Iraqis of all faiths
  • The first pontiff ever to set foot in Iraq will meet church leaders and members of the country’s dwindling Christian minority
  • Francis will visit the shrine city of Najaf and meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite Muslims

ROME: Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, will become the first pontiff ever to set foot in Iraq, where he hopes to encourage the dwindling Christian community to remain in their ancient homeland while also extending a hand of friendship to the Islamic world.

The three-day “pilgrimage” comes despite a recent spike in coronavirus cases in Iraq and an upsurge in violence. Francis arrives just days after a rocket attack on the Ain Al-Assad base in Iraq’s western desert, which hosts US-led coalition troops.

One civilian contractor was killed in Wednesday’s barrage, which the US has blamed on Iran-backed militias. Benedict XVI, who resigned as pontiff eight years ago, warned in an interview on Monday that the visit is “a dangerous trip: for reasons of security and for coronavirus.”

Confirming the visit was still going ahead in his weekly address on Wednesday, Francis said: “For a long time I have wanted to meet these people who have suffered so much. 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.

“The Iraqi people are waiting for us, they were waiting for Saint John Paul II, who was forbidden to go. One cannot disappoint a people for the second time. Let us pray that this journey will be successful.”

This is Francis’ first trip abroad in about 15 months due to the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent restrictions on movement. Although the 84-year-old Argentine pontiff and his entourage have all been vaccinated against COVID-19, no such inoculation campaign has taken place in Iraq. The majority of the country will be under strict lockdown during his visit and movement between provinces will be restricted.

On Tuesday, a spokesman for the pope said he would be traveling in an armored vehicle — not his usual white ‘popemobile’ — and that he would not be meeting crowds, except those attending Mass in the northern Kurdish city of Irbil on Sunday.

“This is a particular situation, that’s why the transports will all be in a closed vehicle, meaning it will be complicated to see the pope on the streets,” Matteo Brunei, the spokesman, said in a press briefing attended by Arab News. “There will be a number of meetings but none will be more than a few hundred people.”

Francis touches down in Baghdad on Friday, where he will be welcomed at the airport by Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, the Iraqi prime minister, in the first meeting between a pope and an Iraqi PM since 2008.

He will then head to the presidential palace for a private meeting with President Barham Salih, who will introduce him to local political and religious authorities. Salih has met the pope in Rome on two occasions: the first time on Nov. 24, 2018, and against on Jan. 25 last year.

Pope Francis begins his historic trip to war-scarred Iraq tomorrow, defying security concerns and the coronavirus pandemic to comfort one of the world's oldest and most persecuted Christian communities. (AFP)

In the afternoon, Francis will meet with the Christian community at the Syrian Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where at least 47 Christians died in a Daesh attack in 2010. At the church, restored in 2012, he will be welcomed by Patriarch Joseph Younan.

Perhaps the most keenly anticipated leg of the visit falls on Saturday, when Francis travels to Najaf, the shrine city where Imam Ali, the fourth Islamic caliph, is buried. Here Francis will meet with the 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites.

Francis became the first pope to visit the Arabian Peninsula two years ago when he met with Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, in Abu Dhabi. There, the two faith leaders signed a document on “human fraternity for world peace” and issued a joint call for freedom of belief.


1,445 km

* Distance Pope Francis will cover within Iraq by plane and helicopter.

Saturday’s visit to Najaf will be the first face-to-face meeting between a Catholic pontiff and a Shiite ayatollah. The meeting at Al-Sistani’s modest home is billed as “a courtesy visit” — so no joint declaration is expected, although a verbal statement is likely. It will nevertheless mark a symbolic moment whereby the pope extends a hand of friendship to the other main branch of Islam.

There are significant geopolitical undertones, however. Al-Sistani is widely seen as a counterweight to Iran’s influence in Iraq and among Shiites as a whole. By meeting with him, Francis is effectively recognizing Sistani as the pre-eminent voice of Shiite Islam over his powerful rival, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Al-Sistani commands immense respect among Iraq’s Shiite majority. Thousands of young men heeded his 2014 fatwa to take up arms against Daesh when the group made lightning advances in the country’s north. His sermons, often delivered through representatives, can have far-reaching political consequences.

A show of solidarity from Al-Sistani now might also give Iraq’s Christians a measure of protection from Iraq’s marauding Shiite militias, which have terrorized Christian families and prevented many from returning home from internal displacement.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein holds a press conference at the Babylon Hotel in the capital Baghdad, on March 4, 2021, on the eve of the first papal visit to the country. (AFP)

Following his meeting with Al-Sistani, Francis will visit the ancient city of Ur in the present-day southern province of Dhi Qar, considered in the Bible to be Abraham’s birthplace.

There, an interreligious meeting is scheduled with representatives of all faiths present in Iraq, including the Yazidis — an ancient culture brought to brink of annihilation by Daesh fanatics when the militant group launched a campaign of slaughter and rape in their homeland of Sinjar in August 2014.

On Saturday afternoon, Francis will celebrate Mass in Baghdad’s Chaldean cathedral — a first in the Chaldean rite for a pontiff of the Catholic Church — together with Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, patriarch of the Chaldeans.


Pope Francis said in a video message on Thursday that he wants to be seen by the Iraqi people as a “penitent pilgrim” asking God for “forgiveness and reconciliation after years of war and terrorism,” and for “consolation of hearts and the healing of wounds.” More here.


On Sunday Francis will reach Irbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where he will be welcomed by the autonomous region’s President Nechirvan Barzani and Prime Minister Masrour Barzani. Although security is far better in Irbil compared to other Iraqi cities, Western targets came under rocket attack there in mid-February.

The Sunni Muslim-majority Kurdistan Region has long been considered a sanctuary for Iraq’s persecuted ethno-religious minorities. During the war with Daesh, tens of thousands of Christians and Yazidis fled to hastily built displacement camps behind Peshmerga lines. Slow reconstruction efforts and ongoing security concerns have left many waiting impatiently to return.

From Irbil, Francis will fly by helicopter to Nineveh’s provincial capital Mosul, which from 2014 to 2017 was the de facto capital of Daesh’s self-proclaimed caliphate. Huge areas of the once flourishing commercial hub were leveled in the US-led coalition’s flight to reclaim the city, and many of its precious religious artifacts were vandalized by Daesh fanatics.

Here Francis will pray to honor the victims in the Square of the Four Churches — Syro-Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Chaldean. Francis will be welcomed there by Mosul’s Archbishop Najib Mikhael Moussa and the local governor.

He will then fly by helicopter to Qaraqosh, a Christian-majority city where on Aug. 6-7, 2014, about 45,000 people were expelled by Daesh hordes. He will say the Angelus Sunday prayer in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which was badly damaged by Daesh and used as a shooting range.

Mass at Franso Hariri stadium in Irbil will be Francis’ last appointment in Iraq. He is then scheduled to fly back to Rome from Baghdad on Monday.


Nearly 100 people injured after train derails in Egypt

Nearly 100 people injured after train derails in Egypt
Updated 9 min 48 sec ago

Nearly 100 people injured after train derails in Egypt

Nearly 100 people injured after train derails in Egypt

CAIRO: Ninety-seven people have been injured after a train derailed in Egypt's Qalioubia province north of Cairo, the health ministry said in a statement.
58 ambulances rushed to the site and moved the injured to three hospitals in the province, it said.

Egypt’s health minister Hala Zayed is heading to Qalioubia province to check up on those injured in the incident. 
The train departed Cairo at 1:20 P.M. and was due to arrive in Mansoura at 5:00 P.M. 
At least 20 people were killed and nearly 200 were injured in March when two trains collided near Tahta in Sohag province.


Iran asks Interpol to arrest Natanz ‘sabotage’ suspect – media report

Iran asks Interpol to arrest Natanz ‘sabotage’ suspect – media report
Updated 18 April 2021

Iran asks Interpol to arrest Natanz ‘sabotage’ suspect – media report

Iran asks Interpol to arrest Natanz ‘sabotage’ suspect – media report
  • National television has published a photo and identified the alleged saboteur as Reza Karimi
  • A Red Notice is a request to law enforcement worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest a person

TEHRAN: Iran has asked Interpol to help arrest a suspect in a sabotage attack on its Natanz nuclear facility which it blames on Israel, a local newspaper reported Sunday.
National television has published a photo and identified the man as 43-year-old Reza Karimi, saying the intelligence ministry had established his role in last week’s “sabotage” at Natanz.
The broadcaster said the suspect had “fled the country before the incident” and that “legal procedures to arrest and return him to the country are currently underway.”
Neither state TV nor other media provided further details on the suspect. The intelligence ministry has not issued an official statement.
The ultraconservative Kayhan daily reported in its Sunday edition that “intelligence and judicial authorities” are engaged in the process.
It added that “after his identity was established, necessary measures were taken through Interpol to arrest and return” the suspect.
Kayhan did not specify what form of Interpol assistance had been requested.
As of Sunday noon, Interpol’s public “red notice” list online returned no results for Reza Karimi.
A Red Notice is a request to law enforcement worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest a person pending extradition, surrender or similar legal action, according to Interpol’s website.
A “small explosion” hit the Natanz plant’s electricity distribution system a week ago, according to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
The Iranian foreign ministry accused arch-foe Israel of an act of “nuclear terrorism” and vowed revenge.
Israel has neither confirmed nor denied involvement but public radio reports said it was a sabotage operation by the Mossad spy agency, citing unnamed intelligence sources.
The New York Times, quoting unnamed US and Israeli intelligence officials, also said there had been “an Israeli role” in the attack.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh last week indirectly accused Israel of attempting to scuttle talks underway in Vienna aimed at reviving a landmark nuclear agreement.
The talks are focused on bringing the US back in to the accord after former president Donald Trump withdrew from it in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Tehran, and to bring Iran back into compliance with key nuclear commitments it suspended in response to the sanctions.

Syria to hold presidential vote on May 26: parliament

Syria to hold presidential vote on May 26: parliament
Updated 18 April 2021

Syria to hold presidential vote on May 26: parliament

Syria to hold presidential vote on May 26: parliament

DAMASCUS: Syria is to hold a presidential election on May 26, the parliament speaker announced Sunday, the country's second in the shadow of civil war, seen as likely to keep President Bashar Al-Assad in power.
Syrians abroad will be "able to vote at embassies" on May 20, Hamouda Sabbagh said in a statement, adding that prospective candidates could hand in their applications from Monday.
Assad, who took power following the death of his father Hafez in 2000, has not yet officially announced that he will stand for re-election.
He won a previous election three years into Syria's devastating civil war in 2014, with 88 percent of the vote.
Under Syria's 2012 constitution, a president may only serve two seven-year terms -- with the exception of the president elected in the 2014 poll.
Candidates must have lived continuously in Syria for at least 10 years, meaning that opposition figures in exile are barred from standing.
Candidates must also have the backing of at least 35 members of the parliament, which is dominated by Assad's Baath party.
This year's vote comes after Russian-backed Syrian government forces re-seized the vital northern city of Aleppo and other opposition-held areas, placing Damascus in control of two-thirds of the country.
But the poll also comes amid a crushing economic crisis.
The decade-long civil war has left at least 388,000 people dead and half of the population displaced.

Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together

Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together
Updated 18 April 2021

Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together

Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together
  • Foreign ministers of Greece, Israel, Cyprus, UAE met in Paphos on Friday
  • ‘Greater Mediterranean region emerging based on new partnerships, initiatives,’ expert tells Arab News

ATHENS: Common interests are bringing together regional coalitions of like-minded countries in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean — favoring stability, combating extremism and respecting international law — in bilateral and multilateral formats.

The latest examples of this diplomatic activism are the meeting of the foreign ministers of Greece, Israel, Cyprus and the UAE that took place on Friday; and the forthcoming visit of Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos to Saudi Arabia.

The four-way talks in the Cypriot city of Paphos marked the first time that the UAE had participated in one of the multilateral forums that have been created in the eastern Mediterranean since 2010.

In Riyadh, Dendias and Panagiotopoulos will sign a Status of Forces Agreement that will pave the way for the development of a Patriot-2 antimissile battery in Saudi Arabia in order to help the Kingdom in its fight against the Houthi militia in neighboring Yemen.

“The evolving web of regional cooperation is creating a new narrative, one that is cracking the glass ceiling of the prevailing, restrictive narrative of our neighborhood as a region of turmoil, conflict and crisis,” said Nikos Christodoulides, Cypriot foreign minister and host of the Paphos meeting.

The four-way talks will benefit from the recent normalization of ties between Israel and the UAE, and could offer an opportunity for the latter to join other regional efforts.

“A partnership that comprises both Israel and the UAE is very important for regional stability,” said Dendias. “We also welcome other regional initiatives undertaken with the aim of regional peace, such as the AlUla Accord, as well as the Saudi initiative that aims at bringing peace to the conflict in Yemen.”

Spyridon N. Litsas, professor of international relations at the University of Macedonia in Greece, and at the Rabdan Academy in Abu Dhabi, told Arab News: “The meeting of Greece, the UAE, Cyprus and Israel in Paphos signals two main facts. Firstly, the UAE and Israel seem able and willing to jointly contribute to the stabilization of the region. Secondly, smart diplomatic deterrence is taking a more definitive shape, and is oriented toward countering Turkish revisionism in the region.”

Ankara’s actions in the eastern Mediterranean, and its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, have raised regional concerns.

“Alliances are formed either to balance the threat of an aggressor, or to balance the power of a revisionist actor,” Litsas said.

“Greece, the UAE, Cyprus and Israel prove that alliances can also be formed on the basis of a smart approach toward Αnkara’s atavism. Turkey produces more revisionism than neighboring states can tolerate.”

The visit of Greece’s foreign and defense ministers to Riyadh has been long in the making, having been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Athens wants to enhance its defense cooperation with Saudi Arabia, as it has done with the UAE.

Saudi F-15 fighter aircraft were stationed in Greece’s Souda Bay airbase last summer, and the two countries have engaged in political consultations at the highest level.

Athens aims to advance its role in linking the eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf. “A Greater Mediterranean region is emerging based on new partnerships and initiatives linking the Gulf with Mediterranean states,” Aristotle Tziampiris, professor of international relations at the University of Piraeus, told Arab News.

“Greece is in the middle of this important development that’s based on common interests and viewpoints, which include viewing Turkey as an increasingly unpredictable actor and Iran as a potentially serious, even existential threat.”

In February, “Athens established the Philia (Friendship) Forum, comprising Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” said Tziampiris.

“Greece is coming, without any doubt, closer to several Gulf countries aiming to contribute to regional stability.”

Israel rescinds outdoor coronavirus mask requirement

Israel rescinds outdoor coronavirus mask requirement
Updated 18 April 2021

Israel rescinds outdoor coronavirus mask requirement

Israel rescinds outdoor coronavirus mask requirement
  • Police-enforced wearing of protective masks outdoors scrapped from Sunday
  • But requirement still applied for indoor public spaces

JERUSALEM: Israel rescinded the mandatory wearing of face masks outdoors and fully reopened schools on Sunday in the latest return to relative normality, boosted by a mass-vaccination campaign against the COVID-19 pandemic.
With almost 54 percent of its 9.3 million population having received both shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, Israel has logged sharp drops in contagion and cases.
The police-enforced wearing of protective masks outdoors, ordered a year ago, was scrapped from Sunday, but the Health Ministry said the requirement still applied for indoor public spaces and urged citizens to keep masks to hand.
With Israeli kindergarteners, elementary and high school students already back in class, middle school pupils who had been kept at home or attended class sporadically returned to pre-pandemic schedules.
The education ministry said that schools should continue to encourage personal hygiene, ventilation of classrooms and to maintain social distancing as much distance as possible during breaks and lessons.
Israel counts East Jerusalem Palestinians among its population and has been administering the vaccines there.
The 5.2 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Islamist Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip have been receiving limited supplies of vaccines provided by Israel, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, the global COVAX vaccine-sharing scheme and China.