Pope Francis will become the first pope to visit Iraq next year, in a trip to five places, including Baghdad, Erbil and Mosul between March 5 and March 8, the Vatican said.
“The programme of the journey will be made known in due course, and will take into consideration the evolution of the worldwide health emergency,” spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement on Monday.
The pope, who turns 84 next week, will also visit Qaraqosh in the Nineveh province, Bruni added.
It will be Francis’ first trip in more than a year. All overseas visits that had been planned for this year were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘Message of peace’
Iraq’s government welcomed the Vatican’s statement, saying the pontiff’s visit will be a “historic event”.
“It symbolises a message of peace to Iraq and the whole region,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
President Barham Saleh had officially invited Pope Francis to visit Iraq in July 2019, hoping it would help the country “heal” after years of strife.
About 100,000 Christians are left in Iraq following sectarian warfare after the 2003 invasion led by the United States and ISIL’s (ISIS) sweep through one-third of the country in 2014.
In 2000, the late Pope John Paul II wanted to visit the ancient Iraqi city of Ur, traditionally held to be the birthplace of Abraham, the father of all three of monotheistic, or Abrahamic, religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
It was to have been the first leg of a three-step pilgrimage to Iraq, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territory.
But negotiations with the government of then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein broke down and he was unable to go.