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.

 


Help build solid basis for Libyan elections and don’t fixate on dates, Security Council told

Stephanie Williams, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s special adviser on Libya, recently reiterated the importance of holding elections “in the shortest possible time frame.” (Reuters/File Photo)
Stephanie Williams, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s special adviser on Libya, recently reiterated the importance of holding elections “in the shortest possible time frame.” (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 25 January 2022

Help build solid basis for Libyan elections and don’t fixate on dates, Security Council told

Stephanie Williams, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s special adviser on Libya, recently reiterated the importance of holding elections “in the shortest possible time frame.” (Reuters/File Photo)
  • Lawyer and activist Elham Saudi condemned “weak” vetting that resulted in candidates implicated in corruption and crimes against humanity being cleared to stand
  • US envoy highlighted concerns about deteriorating human rights situation in the country and continuing reports of violence and abuse targeting migrants, asylum seekers and refugees

NEW YORK: Mediators need to take into account the lessons learned in Libya in the past two years and focus on “creating milestones” for the country’s political transition, rather than fixating on the time frame involved, according to Elham Saudi, co-founder and director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya.

These milestones include an electoral law, a code for conducting elections, and a solid constitutional basis “that appropriately sequences presidential and legislative elections in line with the broader road map to complete (the) transition effectively,” he said.

Addressing the UN Security Council on Monday during its regular meeting about developments in Libya, Saudi said that when these steps are implemented, elections will naturally follow and will be “far easier to manage, protect and successfully deliver.”

Stephanie Williams, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s special adviser on Libya, recently reiterated the importance of holding elections “in the shortest possible time frame.” She said this month that “it is possible, and needed, to have elections before the end of June.”

However, Saudi said that “focusing on the dates for the elections instead of a clear process to facilitate them risks once again compromising due process for the sake of perceived political expediency.”

Growing polarization among political powers in the country and disputes over key aspects of the electoral process — including shortcomings in the legal framework for the elections, contradictory court rulings on candidacies, and political and security concerns as cited by the High National commission for Elections — resulted in the postponement of the elections, which had been scheduled to take place on Dec. 24 last year.

Saudi reminded members of the Security Council that “accountability is a prerequisite to political progress. Poorly defined and fundamentally weak vetting criteria applied to candidates applying for elections resulted in individuals implicated in corruption or crimes against humanity and human rights violations, including persons who have been indicted by the ICC (International Criminal Court), being accepted as candidates.”

Following the postponement of polling in December, Libya’s House of Representatives established a “road map committee” to develop a new path toward national elections. The committee will present its first report for debate on Tuesday in Tripoli.

Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN’s under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, welcomed what she described as renewed efforts by Libya’s Presidency Council to advance national reconciliation but lamented the political uncertainty in the run-up to the elections. which she said has “negatively impacted the overall security situation, including in Tripoli, resulting in shifting alliances among armed groups affiliated with certain presidential candidates.”

She expressed concern about the human rights situation in Libya, citing “incidents of elections-related violence and attacks based on political affiliation, as well as threats and violence against members of the judiciary involved in proceedings on eligibility of electoral candidates, and against journalists, activists and individuals expressing political views.”

DiCarlo added: “Such incidents are an obstacle to creating a conducive environment for free, fair, peaceful and credible elections.”

Taher El-Sonni, Libya’s permanent representative to the UN, told the Security Council that while some people had been surprised by the postponement of elections, it had been widely expected.

“In light of the crisis of trust and the absence of a constitution for the country, or a consensual constitutional rule as advocated by most political forces now, it will be very difficult to conduct these elections successfully because the elections are supposed to be a means of political participation and not a means of predominance and exclusion, and a means to support stability and not an end in itself that may open the way for a new conflict,” he said.

El-Sonni called on the UN to offer more “serious and effective” support to the electoral process and send teams to assess the requirements on the ground.

“This would be a clear message to all about the seriousness of the international community in achieving elections that everyone aspires to, without questioning it or its results,” he said.

The Libyan envoy invited the council to “actively contribute” to the processes of national reconciliation and transitional justice, “two concomitant and essential tracks that have unfortunately been lost during the past years, although they are the main basis for the success of any political solution that leads to the stability of the country.”

He also once again called on the African Union to support his country’s efforts in this area.

Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, senior advisor for special political affairs to the US mission at the UN, said it is time for the wishes of the millions of Libyans who have registered to vote to be respected.

“It is time to move beyond backroom deals between a small circle of powerful individuals backed by armed groups, carving up spoils and protecting their positions,” he said “The Libyan people are ready to decide their own future.

“Those vying to lead Libya must see that the Libyan people will only accept leadership empowered by elections and that they will only tolerate so much delay.”

Like many other ambassadors at the meeting, DeLaurentis also addressed the migrant crisis and reports of violence and abuses directed at migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Libya.

“Libyan authorities must close illicit detention centers, end arbitrary detention practices and permit unhindered humanitarian access to affected populations,” he said.


Coalition in Yemen begins military operations in Sanaa

Coalition in Yemen begins military operations in Sanaa
Updated 25 January 2022

Coalition in Yemen begins military operations in Sanaa

Coalition in Yemen begins military operations in Sanaa
  • More than 50 Houthis killed in operations targeting Marib and Al-Bayda

RIYADH: The Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen said on Monday that it had began “military operations” against “legitimate targets” in the capital, Sanaa, Saudi state TV reported.
The coalition said the operation is in response to threats and out of military necessity to protect civilians from hostile attacks.
The Iran-backed Houthi militia launched missiles toward Saudi Arabia and the UAE earlier on Monday, sparking widespread condemnation from the international community.
Meanwhile, the coalition said it carried out 14 operations targeting the Houthi militia in Marib and Al-Bayda during the past 24 hours, killing more than 50 fighters and destroying nine military vehicles.


US ‘prepared to meet directly’ and ‘urgently’ with Iran on nuclear issue

US ‘prepared to meet directly’ and ‘urgently’ with Iran on nuclear issue
Updated 25 January 2022

US ‘prepared to meet directly’ and ‘urgently’ with Iran on nuclear issue

US ‘prepared to meet directly’ and ‘urgently’ with Iran on nuclear issue
  • The comments came after Iran said it will consider direct talks with the US during ongoing negotiations in Vienna

WASHINGTON: The US State Department on Monday repeated that it remains open to meeting with Iranian officials directly to discuss the nuclear deal and other issues after Iran’s foreign minister said Tehran would consider this but had made no decisions.
Speaking at a briefing, State Department spokesman Ned Price also said the US had not made Iran’s releasing four Americans a condition of reaching an agreement for both nations to resume compliance with the nuclear deal, saying that achieving such an agreement was an uncertain proposition.
Earlier on Monday, the State Department said the US was prepared to hold direct talks with Iran after Tehran said it would consider such an option.
“We are prepared to meet directly,” a State Department spokesperson said.
“We have long held the position that it would be more productive to engage with Iran directly, on both JCPOA negotiations and other issues,” the spokesperson said, referring to the nuclear deal between Iran and major powers.
The spokesperson said that meeting directly would allow “more efficient communication” needed to reach an understanding on what is needed to resuscitate the 2015 deal.
“Given the pace of Iran’s nuclear advances, we are almost out of time to reach an understanding on mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA,” the official said.
The comments came after Iran said Monday it will consider direct talks with the United States during ongoing negotiations in Vienna aimed at restoring the deal.
“Iran is not currently talking with the US directly,” Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said in televised remarks.
“But, if during the negotiation process we get to a point that reaching a good agreement with solid guarantees requires a level of talks with the US, we will not ignore that in our work schedule,” he added.
(With AFP and Reuters)


‘Horror scenes’ in Syrian refugee camps amid ‘extremely cold winter’: UN official

‘Horror scenes’ in Syrian refugee camps amid ‘extremely cold winter’: UN official
Updated 24 January 2022

‘Horror scenes’ in Syrian refugee camps amid ‘extremely cold winter’: UN official

‘Horror scenes’ in Syrian refugee camps amid ‘extremely cold winter’: UN official
  • ‘No one should have to live in these conditions,’ Mark Cutts tells briefing attended by Arab News
  • Nearly 3m people internally displaced in northern Syria, most of them women and children

LONDON: Brutal winter conditions in northern Syria have ushered in mass-scale suffering for 2.8 million internally displaced persons, a top UN humanitarian official warned on Monday.

“We’re extremely concerned about the situation there,” Mark Cutts, the UN’s deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, said in a briefing attended by Arab News.

The IDPs, he added, are “some of the most vulnerable people in the world,” the majority of them living in temporary camps and tents.

“During this extremely cold weather, we’ve seen some real horror scenes in the last few days — about 1,000 tents have either collapsed completely or been very badly damaged as a result of heavy snow,” said Cutts, adding that temperatures have dropped to as low as -7 degrees centigrade.

About 100,000 people have been affected by the heavy snow, while 150,000 more have been affected by freezing conditions and heavy rain.

“These are people who’ve been through a lot in the past few years. They’ve fled from one place to another. The bombs have followed them. Many of the hospitals and schools in northwest Syria have been destroyed in the 10 years of war,” said Cutts, adding that what he and his team are seeing in camps now is a “real disaster zone.”

He said: “Our humanitarian workers have been pulling people out from under their collapsed tents … They’ve been clearing snow from tents with their bare hands.”

Children, the elderly and the disabled are suffering the most from the conditions, added Cutts, who appealed to the international community to “do more, to recognize the scale of the crisis, to help us get these people out of tents and into safer, more dignified temporary shelter.”

In a final plea, he said: “It’s absolutely unacceptable that you’ve got 1.7 million people living in camps in these appalling conditions — most of them are women and children and elderly people.

“These civilians are stranded in a warzone, and now, on top of that, they’re dealing with temperatures below zero. No one should have to live in these conditions.”


Iran: ‘Possible’ to agree on prisoners, nuclear deal

Iran: ‘Possible’ to agree on prisoners, nuclear deal
Updated 24 January 2022

Iran: ‘Possible’ to agree on prisoners, nuclear deal

Iran: ‘Possible’ to agree on prisoners, nuclear deal

TEHRAN: Tehran on Monday said it is “possible” to reach an agreement on the two issues of Iran-US prisoners’ release and the Vienna talks to restore the 2015 nuclear deal.

“They are two different paths, but if the other party (the US) has the determination, there is the possibility that we reach a reliable and lasting agreement in both of them in the shortest time,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said during his weekly press conference.

Khatibzadeh’s comments came in reaction to remarks made by the US envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, who on Sunday said it is unlikely that Washington would strike an agreement unless Tehran releases four US citizens.

BACKGROUND

The four US citizens held in Iran are Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi, 50, and his father Baquer, 85, as well as environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, 66, and businessman Emad Sharqi, 57.

“Iran has not accepted any precondition from day one of the negotiations,” Khatibzadeh said.

He added that “the negotiations are complicated enough, and should not get more complex with complicated remarks.”