The city of Najaf in central Iraq has been getting a facelift in advance of Pope Francis’ historic visit to the country on Friday.
Workers are sprucing up the main boulevard in town, adding a fresh coat of paint to the curbs, filling up potholes and putting up banners.
“One of the first signs that the pope is going to see as soon as he steps off the plane is a huge poster draped along the airport with a picture of Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani,” said Hayder al-Khoei, director of foreign relations at the Al-Khoei Institute in Najaf, an Islamic seminary and an interfaith academy.
Khoei, who has been watching the preparations in recent weeks, said the poster conveys a famous quote from Imam Ali, a 7th-century Muslim leader, which goes: “People are of two kinds; they are either your brothers in faith or your equals in humanity.”
Pope Francis’ three-day trip marks the first-ever papal visit to Iraq. His itinerary includes meetings with political and religious leaders plus visits to historical sites. The pope has described the journey as a means of forging unity.
Some in Iraq, like Khoei, say the pope's trip is significant — not just for the residents of Najaf, a center for Shiites, but for Iraqis all over the country.
“They see it as a recognition not just of Iraq’s rich history, religious significance and demographic diversity, but also of the pivotal role the country can and should play in building bridges between communities across the region and across the world.”
“They see it as a recognition not just of Iraq’s rich history, religious significance and demographic diversity, but also of the pivotal role the country can and should play in building bridges between communities across the region and across the world,” he said.
‘I come as a pilgrim’
Pope Francis spoke about his visit to Iraq this week. He said he has always wanted to make the trip, which he sees as a way to strengthen ties between different faiths.
“I come as a pilgrim,” he said, addressing the people of Iraq, asking for prayers for a successful trip.
The Catholic Church leader’s itinerary is packed: Pope Francis will visit Baghdad, Najaf, the ancient site of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, the common patriarch of the Abrahamic religions, and several other places in northern Iraq.
He will meet with political and religious leaders, including the prominent Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
But the pope has come under some scrutiny for traveling during the pandemic. While he has been vaccinated, many in Iraq have not. The Vatican's ambassador to the country, Mitja Leskovar, tested positive for COVID-19 last month.
Another concern is security. Militia groups in Iraq have fired rockets at areas that used to be safe.
But Masrour Barzani, the prime minister of the Kurdistan region, told France 24 that Iraqis are ready.
“We are taking all the precautionary measures to provide maximum security for his holiness’ visit to our region."
“We are taking all the precautionary measures to provide maximum security for his holiness’ visit to our region,” he said.
The pontiff will be accompanied by members of the Swiss Guards, who are responsible for his personal safety.
The 84-year-old will ride in an armored car instead of the popemobile.
Hope and recognition for Christians
One of several areas that Pope Francis will tour is the Nineveh Plains, which is home to several minority groups, including Christians — as evidenced by several churches that can be found in and around the city of Mosul.
A video posted online showed St. Thomas church, believed to be the oldest church in Old Mosul, and said to have been built on the site where Saint Thomas the Apostle once lived.
Northern Iraq was once a thriving center for Christian communities (there are 14 officially recognized Christian denominations in Iraq). That changed after the US-led invasion in 2003. It sparked sectarian violence that devastated Christian communities. Many Iraqi Christians fled the country.
“Christians, as other communities, have suffered from the conflict and the displacement. Many of their villages and their cities have been destroyed,” said Hassan Amer Abdullah, who works for the Catholic Relief Services in the city of Dohuk in the Kurdish region.
Abdullah said the pope’s visit is a welcome morale boost.
“It’s important for the entire communities that the evil does not have the last word here in Iraq and the pope did not forget about them.”
“It’s important for the entire communities that the evil does not have the last word here in Iraq and the pope did not forget about them,” he said.
According to a report by the US State Department, Christian leaders estimate there are fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining in Iraq, with the largest population — at least 200,000 — living in the Nineveh Plains and the Kurdish region in the north of the country.
“Christian population has declined over the past 17 years from a pre-2002 population estimate of between 800,000 and 1.4 million persons,” the report says.
The rise of ISIS in Iraq dealt another major blow to minority groups in Iraq, including Christians. The group terrorized Christians by forcing them to convert to Islam or face execution.
ISIS militants also desecrated churches.
Abdullah al-Awhad, an 18-year-old resident of Mosul, said his family fled the city when ISIS came, when he was 12. He moved to Bahrain and then back to Mosul three years later.
“[The city] really looked different,” he recalled. “It was pale. I almost didn’t recognize some places in the city.”
Today, Mosul is slowly recovering. People are rebuilding their homes, as well as churches and mosques.
Awhad said he’s delighted that the pope will come and see the rebirth of Mosul for himself.