Pope Francis plans to travel to Iraq next year, the Vatican said on Monday, in the first such announcement since the coronavirus pandemic brought all papal travel to a halt in the spring.
The pope had accepted an invitation from the country and the local Catholic Church, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said, adding that the trip was scheduled for March 5-8, 2021.
The 83-year-old will visit the Iraqi capital Baghdad, the plain of Ur and the cities of Erbil and Mosul, among other things.
However, the trip depended on the worldwide situation of the “health emergency,” Bruni said, referring to the coronavirus pandemic.
Iraqi President Barham Salih said, “His Holiness the Pope will visit Iraq in March 2021. The journey of Pope Francis to Mesopotamia- cradle of civilization, birthplace of Abraham, father of the faithful- will be a message of peace to Iraqis of all religions & serve to affirm our common values of justice & dignity,” in a tweet on Monday.
The Iraqi Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the visit would be a “historic event” to promote tolerance and diversity in the region.
Francis’ visit, if it goes ahead, would be the first time a pope has ever visited Iraq, according to Vatican News website.
For the pope, it would be a further visit to the Muslim world following his trip to Abu Dhabi in February 2019. There, he met Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyeb, a top Sunni Muslim cleric, who co-signed a “Human Fraternity Document” with Francis.
That was the first time a pope had visited the Arabian Peninsula.
The security situation in Iraq remains uncertain, however, and Mosul is seen as being particularly dangerous. Despite the defeat of terrorist militia Islamic State (IS), cells are still active in the country.