VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis will make a pilgrimage to Iraq in March, pandemic conditions permitting, the Vatican said Monday, in announcing what would be the pontiff's first trip abroad in more than a year.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Francis will make the March 5-8 visit, with stops in Baghdad, and the “plains of Ur, linked to the memory of Abraham,” the Biblical patriarch who is revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims, as well as to the cities of Irbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh.
Bruni said the trip’s schedule will be announced later and will take into consideration “the evolution of the worldwide health emergency″ that is the COVID-19 pandemic.
It would be the first trip abroad for Francis since November 2019, when he visited Thailand and Japan. Francis turns 84 on Dec. 17.
The Vatican said Francis had accepted invitations from the Iraqi government from the local Catholic church.
It wasn't immediately clear if the pope would travel if he had not been vaccinated against COVID-19 before the trip. The Vatican hasn't announced any vaccination plans yet. Italy is expected to start vaccinations in January.
In mid-2019, Francis told Catholic aid agencies that he planned on traveling to Iraq in 2020.
At that time, the pope expressed hope that Iraq could build its future peacefully in the "shared pursuit of the common good on the part of all elements of society, including the religious, and not fall back into hostilities sparked by the simmering conflicts of the regional powers.”
Iraq was one of the few countries whose visit eluded globe-trotting Pope John Paul II. While then ailing, he had wanted to go to Iraq in 1999, but, according to the Vatican, the pilgrimage never happened because then-dictator Saddam Hussein postponed it.
Qaraqosh is a big Christian town on the Nineveh plains that had emptied entirely when the Islamic State group took over Mosul. An order of nuns runs a nursery school there now for 130 children, according to the Italian Catholic bishops conference.
Irbil is largely Kurdish, with some Turkmen and Christian communities.
Mosul is majority Sunni Arab.
Balint Szlanko contributed to this report from Beirut.