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.

THENUMBER

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.

READ MORE

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.

 


US-led anti-Daesh coalition ends Iraq combat mission: Baghdad

US-led anti-Daesh coalition ends Iraq combat mission: Baghdad
Updated 09 December 2021

US-led anti-Daesh coalition ends Iraq combat mission: Baghdad

US-led anti-Daesh coalition ends Iraq combat mission: Baghdad
  • Daesh established a so-called caliphate across swathes of Syria and Iraq from 2014 but was defeated in Iraq in 2017 by the multinational coalition

BAGHDAD: The US-led coalition against Daesh group jihadists has finished its combat mission in Iraq and will shift to a training and advisory role, Iraq’s national security adviser said Thursday.
The change of the mission for around 2,500 US troops stationed in the war-battered country by the end of the year was first announced in July by President Joe Biden, during a Washington visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhemi.
The Iraqi government has been under pressure from powerful pro-Iranian political groups with armed wings that have vehemently demanded all US troops leave the country.
“We are officially announcing the end of the coalition forces’ combat mission,” national security adviser Qassem Al-Aaraji wrote on Twitter.
“The relationship with the international coalition continues in the areas of training, advising and capacity building” of Iraqi forces, he added.
Aaraji was speaking after a meeting between the coalition and the Joint Operations commanders of the Iraqi security forces.
In effect, the about 2,500 US and 1,000 coalition troops deployed in Iraq will remain there. They have been acting as advisers and trainers since mid-2020.
Daesh established a so-called caliphate across swathes of Syria and Iraq from 2014 but was defeated in Iraq in 2017 by the multinational coalition.
Iraqi interior ministry media official General Saad Maan told a news conference on Thursday that “the coalition will have completely finished the transition to a non-combat mission before the end of the year.”
He was quoting what the coalition commander, Major General John W. Brennan Jr., said during the meeting.
The Hashed Al-Shaabi, a former coalition of Iraqi paramilitary groups now integrated into the regular forces, an influential political player and ally of Tehran, is particularly virulent about the departure of American troops.
On social networks, groups close to pro-Iranian factions have been issuing threats and reminding Washington of a December 31 deadline set to demand a full US withdrawal.
In recent months, dozens of rocket and drone attacks have targeted American troops and interests in Iraq. Never claimed, these attacks are systematically blamed by the United States on pro-Iranian Iraqi factions.


Israel closes probe of police who shot Palestinian attacker

Israel closes probe of police who shot Palestinian attacker
Updated 09 December 2021

Israel closes probe of police who shot Palestinian attacker

Israel closes probe of police who shot Palestinian attacker
  • Video footage showed a paramilitary Border Police officer shooting the attacker when he was already lying on the ground
  • The incident came amid an uptick in Israeli-Palestinian violence in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank

TEL AVIV: Israel’s Justice Ministry said Thursday it was closing an investigation into two police officers who shot dead a Palestinian assailant as he lay on the ground, accepting the officers’ assertion that they acted in self-defense.
A Palestinian attacker on Saturday stabbed and wounded an ultra-Orthodox Jew outside Jerusalem’s Old City. He then tried to stab the officers before being shot and falling to the ground. Video footage showed a paramilitary Border Police officer shooting the attacker when he was already lying on the ground.
The shooting prompted calls for an investigation and drew comparisons to a 2016 incident in which an Israeli soldier was caught on camera shooting a wounded Palestinian attacker who was lying on the ground.
The Justice Ministry said it made its decision to close the case following the questioning of the two officers, who said they acted in self-defense.
“It was an incident that took place over mere seconds, in circumstances in which there was a real and concrete threat to the lives of the fighters and the civilians in the area,” it said in a statement. “It was found to be legally justified to use a weapon.”
The incident came amid an uptick in Israeli-Palestinian violence in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. On Wednesday, an Israeli woman was stabbed and lightly wounded in a tense neighborhood in east Jerusalem. The suspect, a Palestinian female minor, fled the scene and was later arrested inside a nearby school, police said.
Last month, a Hamas militant opened fire in Jerusalem’s Old City, killing one Israeli and wounding four others before being fatally shot by police.
Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 war along with the West Bank and Gaza. Israel annexed east Jerusalem in a move not recognized internationally and considers the entire city its capital. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state, to include the West Bank and Gaza.
Palestinians and Israeli rights groups say Israeli security forces sometimes use excessive force in response to attacks, killing suspected assailants who could have been arrested or who posed no immediate threat to security forces.
Rights groups also say Israel rarely holds members of its security forces accountable for the deadly shootings of Palestinians. Investigations often end with no charges or lenient sentences, and in many cases witnesses are not summoned for questioning.
Israel says its security forces make every effort to avoid harming civilians and that it investigates alleged abuses.
In the widely publicized 2016 case, Israeli soldier Elor Azaria was caught on camera shooting a wounded Palestinian attacker who was lying on the ground. Azaria later served two-thirds of a 14-month sentence after being convicted of reckless manslaughter.
His case sharply divided Israelis. The military pushed for his prosecution, saying he violated its code of ethics, while many Israelis, particularly on the nationalist right, defended his actions.


Multinational coalition reports record drugs seizure near Arabian Gulf in 2021

Multinational coalition reports record drugs seizure near Arabian Gulf in 2021
Updated 09 December 2021

Multinational coalition reports record drugs seizure near Arabian Gulf in 2021

Multinational coalition reports record drugs seizure near Arabian Gulf in 2021
  • Value of the drugs seized by the Bahrain-based Combined Task Force 150 exceeded the past four years combined

MANAMA/DUBAI: A multinational naval coalition said it seized over 67 tons of drugs worth more than $189 million in operations near the Arabian Gulf in 2021, a record for the task force.

The value of the drugs seized by the Bahrain-based Combined Task Force 150 exceeded the past four years combined, said Tim Hawkins, spokesman for the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) that oversees the task force.

The haul including 6,550 kilograms of heroin, 4,052 kilograms of methamphetamine and 56,834 kilograms of hashish was all destroyed, he said.

Commander of CTF 150, Royal New Zealand Navy Captain Brendon Clark, said the drugs came from a number of countries around the region, without specifying.

“It’s all about maritime security operations ... preventing illicit activity from non-state actors in the region,” he said.

“We do that so that we can have legitimate commercial shipping, legitimate commercial fishing, can transit and operate in the region free from these non state threats.”

CTF 150 is part of the CMF naval partnership in which 34 nations patrol 3.2 million square miles of international waters. The New Zealand navy took command of CTF 150 in July.

Meanwhile, the US seized two large caches of Iranian arms, including 171 surface-to-air missiles and eight anti-tank missiles, intended for the Houthi militia in Yemen.

The US justice department on Tuesday said navy troops seized the weapons from two vessels in the Arabian Sea while conducting routine maritime security operations.

“Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a designated foreign terrorist organization, orchestrated the arms shipments, which were destined for Houthi militants in Yemen,” the statement added.

Approximately 1.1 million barrels of Iranian petroleum products were also seized from four foreign-flagged tankers in or around the Arabian Sea while en route to Venezuela, the justice department said.

“The actions of the United States in these two cases strike a resounding blow to the Government of Iran and to the criminal networks supporting Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division.

The seized petroleum products were sold for over $26 million, pursuant to a court order, with the proceeds directed, “in whole or in part, to the US Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund.”

The operation represents the US “government’s largest-ever forfeitures of fuel and weapons shipments from Iran,” the statement noted.


Arab coalition destroys Houthi communications system, weapons depot

Arab coalition destroys Houthi communications system, weapons depot
Updated 09 December 2021

Arab coalition destroys Houthi communications system, weapons depot

Arab coalition destroys Houthi communications system, weapons depot
  • The coalition is taking all necessary measures to protect civilians and stop cross-border attacks, it said in a statement

DUBAI: The Arab coalition launched a series of attacks against Houthi targets overnight, destroying a communication system in the Al-Bani district and a weapons depot in Sanaa. 
The coalition said the communication system was being used to launch cross-border drone attacks. 
Coalition forces earlier intercepted and destroyed two drones in Yemeni airspace, one of which was monitored and launched from Sanaa airport.
Clashes between the Iran-backed Houthis and the coalition have intensified in recent months, specifically in Marib where it destroyed a Houthi missile defense system.
On Wednesday, the coalition carried out 16 operations targeting the Houthi militia in Marib in the past 24 hours. It said 95 militants were killed and 11 Houthi military vehicles were destroyed during the operation.
The coalition is taking all necessary measures to protect civilians and stop cross-border attacks, it said in a statement.


UN Security Council condemns deadly Daesh terror attacks in Iraq

UN Security Council condemns deadly Daesh terror attacks in Iraq
Updated 09 December 2021

UN Security Council condemns deadly Daesh terror attacks in Iraq

UN Security Council condemns deadly Daesh terror attacks in Iraq
  • Two incidents in the past week, one in Basra and the other in the north of the country, left dozens of people dead or injured
  • Council members pledged their continued support to Iraq in its fight against terrorism, and in opposing Daesh in particular

The UN Security Council on Wednesday strongly condemned recent terrorist attacks in Iraq that killed or injured dozens of people. Daesh has claimed responsibility.

At least four people were killed and 20 injured in an explosion in Basra on Dec. 7, and at least 13 died in an attack in the north of the country on Dec. 3.

The members of the Security Council offered their condolences to the families of the dead and wished the injured a speedy recovery. They also reiterated their support for the “independence, sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity, democratic process and prosperity of Iraq.”

They urged all states to “actively” cooperate with Iraqi authorities to bring to justice the “perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors of these reprehensible acts of terrorism.” Such cooperation, they stressed, is in line with obligations under international law and Security Council resolutions.

Council members “reiterated that any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of their motivation, wherever, whenever and by whomsoever committed.”

Pledging its continued support to Iraq in its fight against terrorism, and particularly Daesh, the council “reaffirmed the need for all states to combat by all means — in accordance with the charter of the United Nations and other obligations under international law, including international human rights law, international refugee law and international humanitarian law — threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts.”