Pope Francis will be visiting Iraq from March 5th through 8th, 2021. It will be the first time a
pope has visited the biblical land of Iraq and it will be Francis’ first return to jet plane travel since November 2019 when the global pandemic stopped his visits. Iraq is a spiritual pilgrimage of sorts and it is full of important religious sites. It is a place known in Arabic as the “land of the two rivers” the mighty Tigris and Euphrates, a land once called Mesopotamia, the “cradle of civilization.” The Garden of Eden could have been in ancient Iraq, but certainly the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Tower of Babel were located there. The prophets of the Bible inhabited Iraq, the oldest being Abraham, who headed from the Chaldean Ur to the Holy land where the era of prophecy began. Iraq is where Prophet Jonah lived and called for repentance and return to God. It is where Jews were exiled in Old Testament times, such as the prophet Daniel, rescued from the lion’s den by God’s grace. Two days after Pope Francis’s papal installation in 2013, Cardinal Louis Sako, the patriarch of Babylon met with Francis and made his pitch for a papal visit to Iraq. Pope John Paul II had planned to visit Iraq in the year 2000, but talks with the then-President Saddam Hussein broke down. Pope Benedict XVI was later invited to visit by the Iraqi government, but concern about security prevented the trip. Pope Francis promised Cardinal Sako that he would visit “because he doesn’t want to disappoint the Iraqi people a second time and he said “I am the pastor of people who are suffering.” The Iraqi Christians have been disappearing. Before the U.S. led invasion of Iraqi in 2003, there were between 1.3 and 1.5 million Christians living there, or about 1 percent of the population. Ninety five to Ninety-eight percent of the population of Iraqi is of either the Shiite Muslim or Sunni Muslim religions. During the chaos of the Iraqi war many fled and the number of Christians was reduced to around 500,000.Then came the rise of the Islamic State (Isis) and the genocide against the country’s Christian and the Yazidism religions by Islamist militants. The estimate is now fewer than 250,000 Christians remain in the country. Church leaders had been tortured, kidnapped and assassinated, monasteries and churches systematically burned and destroyed. Christians that remain say they are treated as second-class citizens, and many still want to leave. Isis is now gone, but the Christians are wary of returning home. Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said that “the Pope feels the need to go and give encouragement to these Christians, and invite them to continue giving their witness in an environment that is not at all easy.” Francis is on a mission to heal postgenocide Iraq. But another part of his mission is to try and build a bridge that divides Iraqi between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims