On Friday, Pope Francis is expected to arrive in Iraq on his first official visit as head of the Roman Catholic Church. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the airbase the Holy Father was supposed to visit was hit by rockets, the Hungarian News Agency MTI reported.
The Ayn al Asad Airbase is situated in the Anbar Province of western Iraq. It is one of the last remaining bases in Iraq where soldiers of the military coalition fighting the Islamic State are stationed. On Wednesday, 10 rockets were fired at the airbase, with several of them crashing into the facility. According to reports, no service personnel were killed, but as a senior American defense department official told the New York Times, a U.S. contractor died of an apparent heart attack during the rocket barrage. The group responsible for the attack has not yet been identified.
In recent weeks, and over the past year, there have been several similar attacks in Iraq. Soon after U.S. forces killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in a drone attack in January 2020, Iran launched a retaliatory air strike on the al Asad base.
Spokesman for the Holy See, Matteo Bruni, said on Tuesday that Pope Francis has wanted to visit Iraq for years and does not consider the trip dangerous, neither from a security point of view nor because of the coronavirus pandemic. As Bruni pointed out, there are just a few public events in the Pope’s program, and the only time he will meet people in an enclosed space will be in the church of Qaraqosh on the Niniveh Plain; in this church, a couple hundred followers will gather to see the Holy Father, he noted.
The spokesman also said that, as usual, Vatican security and Swiss Guards have checked out the route of the visit. Also, although he typically does not use such transportation, Pope Francis will be provided with an armored vehicle. In any event, he will be traveling in a closed vehicle, except in Erbil, where he will arrive in an open-air car for the mass to be held at the stadium there. This facility can accommodate 30,000 people, but only 10,000 people will be admitted to participate.
According to the Vatican News portal, Pope Francis’ Apostolic Journey is scheduled to begin in the capital of Baghdad on Friday, March 5. The Pope will meet there with representatives of Christian communities, as well as with civil and religious authorities. According to the program, he will then travel south to the city of Najaf to meet the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a leading Iraqi Shia Muslim, as well as religious leaders and communities of other faiths.
“For Iraq’s small Christian community, the highlight of the trip will be the Pope’s visit to the north of the country, where thousands of Christians in the area were killed under the rule of the so-called Islamic State between 2014 and 2017,” Vatican News wrote.
A couple of days ago, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Carolin, released a video message and stressed the significance of this visit. He described the Apostolic Journey as a sign of the Pope’s “closeness” to the Catholic Church in Iraq and to its “dwindling” Christian communities.
Title image: The visit of Pope Francis is the first-ever papal trip to Iraq, said Vatican News. In the photo, workers pave a road in preparation for the visit.