VATICAN CITY — On the same day that 10 rockets hit an air base in Iraq, Pope Francis said he had to travel to the country because he could not disappoint them.
“The Iraqi people are waiting for us; they awaited St. John Paul II, who was not permitted to go” in 1999, Pope Francis said March 3. “One cannot disappoint a people for the second time. Let us pray that this journey will be a good one.”
The pope spoke about the trip at the end of his weekly general audience, telling viewers, “The day after tomorrow, God willing, I will go to Iraq for a three-day pilgrimage.” The trip is scheduled for March 5-8.
“For a long time, I have wanted to meet those people who have suffered so much; to meet that martyred Church in the land of Abraham,” he said.
“Together with the other religious leaders, we also will take another step forward in fraternity among believers,” the pope said before traveling to the country where most people are Muslim but coexisted for centuries with Christian and other minority communities.
“I ask you to accompany this apostolic visit with your prayers, so that it may unfold in the best possible way and bear the hoped-for fruits,” Pope Francis said.
Several hours earlier, 10 rockets landed in and near a military base about 100 miles west of Baghdad. The Ain al-Asad airbase hosts Iraqi, U.S. and other coalition troops. No casualties were reported.
The Associated Press reported that it was the first attack since the U.S. struck Iran-aligned militia targets along the Iraq-Syria border Feb. 26, creating fears of a series of alternating retaliatory attacks.
Pope Francis and his aides are well aware of the security and health risks involved with his planned trip to Iraq, but “all the precautions have been taken” and the pope feels a sense of “urgency” to show his love and concern for the Iraqi people, said the director of the Vatican press office.
“The best way to interpret this journey is as an act of love, an act of love for this land, for this people, for its Christians,” the director, Matteo Bruni, told reporters March 2 during a press briefing about the trip.
“Every act of love may be or can be interpreted as extreme,” he said, especially in communicating to others, confirming for them that they are loved.
Bruni said acting out of love by traveling while the coronavirus pandemic is continuing — and worsening in Iraq — and at a time when sporadic acts of terrorist violence have increased slightly “does not mean in any way to lose sight of the consequences of one’s action, but it is possible in this regard to measure the need of the other to receive confirmation of that love, consideration and attention.”
“All of the precautions have been taken from a health point of view,” Bruni said, with the pope and everyone traveling with him — including some 70 members of the media — having been vaccinated against COVID-19 by the Vatican. The only event scheduled with more than 200 people is a Mass March 7 in a stadium in Irbil, which seats 30,000 people, but fewer than 10,000 free tickets were printed.