By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) -Pope Francis will make the first visit by a pope to Iraq next March, the Vatican said on Monday, a risky four-day trip that has eluded his predecessors.
Spokesman Matteo Bruni said Francis, who turns 84 next week, will visit the capital Baghdad, as well as Ur, a city linked to the Old Testament figure of Abraham, and Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh in the plain of Nineveh.
The trip, at the invitation of the Iraqi government and the local Catholic Church, is planned for March 5-8, Bruni 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,” Bruni said in statement.
It will be the pope’s first overseas trip since November 2019. Trips planned for this year were cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Vatican source said one of the aims of the trip was to comfort Christians who, amid wars and conflicts, have been forced to flee from Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries.
Iraqi President Barham Salih said in a post on Twitter that the trip “will be a message of peace to Iraqis of all religions & serve to affirm our common values of justice & dignity.”
Iraq is home to many different eastern rite churches, both Catholic and Orthodox.
Iraq’s small Christian population of several hundred thousand suffered particular hardships when Islamic State militants controlled large parts of the country between 2014 and 2017. Christians have mostly recovered freedom to worship, especially in parts of northern Iraq since those jihadists were pushed out.
Many fear further upheaval in Iraq would hit them hard as a minority, however, and still look to migrate.
In June of 2019, Francis told members of charities that help Christians in the Middle East that whenever he contemplated the problems of the region, he had the “constant thought” of visiting Iraq.
He had hoped to make the trip this year but his plans were scuppered first by security concerns and then by the pandemic.
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 the great monotheistic religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
It was to have been the first leg of a three-step pilgrimage to Iraq, Egypt and Israel.
But negotiations with the government of then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein broke down and he was unable to go.
John Paul, who later died in 2005, instead held what the Vatican called a “virtual pilgrimage” to Ur in the Vatican and later that year visited Egypt and Israel.
(Additional reporting by John Davidson in Baghdad; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Bernadette Baum)