Security Brief: The Pope's Visit to Iraq
March 6, 2021
Date: March 5 - March 9, 2021
Parties involved: Pope Francis; Iraq
The event: Pope Francis arrived in Iraq on March 5, 2021, for his 4-day Apostolic Journey. The Pope’s trip will consist of visiting a Baghdad church, meeting with Ayatollah Sistani and other Shiite leaders, and traveling throughout the country to Mosul where he will deliver a prayer for war victims in the city’s Church Square. The Pope’s itinerary also includes a visit to Our Lady of Salvation, the Syrian Catholic church where an attack in 2010 killed more than 50 people and flying to Erbil in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has been the site of rocket attacks in recent days. The Pope is hoping to mend Christian-Muslim relations and draw attention to the dwindling Christian population in Iraq, which is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
The implications: The Pope’s visit demonstrates the Catholic Church’s priority of reconciling the relations of the minority Christian community in Iraq and working with Ayatollah Sistani to establish a peaceful state of coexistence between people of all religions in Iraq. Ayatollah Sistani rarely meets with foreign dignitaries so this trip is important for both communities. It is possible the Ayatollah is meeting with the Pope to work on building a groundwork for peace and as a show of force against the Islamic State and other Islamic extremists as both have been outspoken against Islamist violence in recent years. Iraqis are excited for the Pope’s visit as Iraq tries to separate church from state, despite pushback from Iran. The Pope’s visit raises concerns because Iraq, like many countries in the CENTCOM region, has been disproportionately hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. There is fear that the Pope’s visit could become a superspreader event. The Pope is vaccinated but Vatican officials worry that because he is vaccinated and many Iraqi people are not, there will be some backlash. Iraq’s healthcare system has been overwhelmed by the recent surge in cases and it is likely the Pope’s visit could cause an influx in the COVID-19 cases in Iraq, thus further taxing the economy and healthcare system. The Pope’s itinerary has been modified accordingly and many of the initially scheduled meetings have been canceled.
The Pope is planning to visit Erbil and Mosul, both of which have experienced elevated levels of violence in recent months and are potentially vulnerable to attacks from terrorist groups like the Islamic State and Shia militias. Iranian-backed Shia militia groups pose an elevated threat to the Pope due to the recent increase in attacks on US forces. This assessment is based on the increase in attacks against US and western forces and also based on Iran’s disapproval of Iraq’s attempt at a separation of church and state. Therefore, Iran is not only displeased with the Pope’s visit to Iraq in general but is particularly critical of the Pope’s visit with Ayatollah Sistani. One possible threat is the visit to Our Lady of Salvation, the site of an al-Qaeda attack in 2010 that killed 50 people, which may be vulnerable to another attack. Considerable security measures have already been put in place by both Iraqi Security Forces and the Pope’s security team in order to mitigate any potential threat. Therefore, although there remains a potential threat to the church, any attack is low and very unlikely to cause wide-scale damage or casualties.
While the public itinerary does not list any meetings with US officials in Iraq, if any potential meetings occur, that would indicate an increased risk of an attack. An attack against both the Pope and US officials, whether military, government, or civilian, could be seen as a symbolic attack on both the western church and state and would likely be a major psychological attack on millions around the world beyond those harmed physically. It would also likely inflame religious animosity and could provoke a growth in the reciprocal radicalization of religiously motivated Christian or far-right extremists globally. Due to the resurgence of the Islamic State, they remain a threat as attacks have increased in the country such as the January attack in Baghdad. Ongoing collaboration between the US and Iraqi forces to counter the threat of ISIS could be further enhanced through increased cooperation with Pope’s security staff in order to anticipate and danger.
Cities in Iraq have recently experienced a wave of deadly anti-government protests, notably in Dhi Qar. The overall societal climate is tense as public services are contracting due to the pandemic. Though not a direct threat to the papal mission, a flaring up of civil unrest may complicate the Pope’s potential extraction plans or derail his itineraries.
Broader implications for the Christian community of Iraq are bleak. The papal presence may help raise awareness about the plight of Iraqi Christians but it may also trigger violent reprisals after the Pope’s departure. It will be important that the papal mission stresses the need to uphold the protection of the marginalized community in hopes that the security climate becomes sustainable and the visit does not merely constitute a public relations stunt.
 Pope Francis by Catholic Church of England and Wales licensed under Creative Commons
 Why the Pope Is Visiting One of the World’s Oldest Christian Communities, New York Times, March 2021 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/04/world/middleeast/pope-francis-iraq-explained.html
 Pope Francis arrives in Baghdad for risky, historic Iraq tour, Reuters, March 2021. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-pope-depart/pope-francis-departs-rome-for-risky-historic-iraq-tour-idUSKBN2AX0JQ