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Pope Francis Hopes To Visit Iraq Next Month, Pandemic Permitting

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Pandemic permitting, Pope Francis hopes to visit Iraq next month. Many of Iraq's Christians have fled the country after ISIS targeted them in recent years. So what would a papal visit mean to them? NPR's Alice Fordham has been asking.

UNIDENTIFIED CONGREGATION: (Singing in non-English language).

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: On a recent Sunday in Baghdad, Christians - in this case Chaldean Catholics - gathered, masked and distanced, to attend Mass.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in non-English language).

FORDHAM: Some are from here in the capital; others were displaced when ISIS rampaged through Christian areas in the north.

NADIRA AL BOUTROS: (Through interpreter) We were in Mosul and ran away.

FORDHAM: Nadira al Boutros, at church with her little grandson, tells me she escaped the extremists seven years ago.

BOUTROS: (Through interpreter) They announced it in the churches - leave quickly; ISIS has come.

FORDHAM: She tells me ISIS smashed up those churches, but brightens when she talks about Pope Francis.

BOUTROS: (Through interpreter) Christians are persecuted. But when we heard that we could see the pope, it was as if the world was reborn.

FORDHAM: Even if she only sees him on TV, she will feel happy, reassured. Father Ghassan al Bhutani says Christian families often tell him that they want to leave Iraq.

GHASSAN AL BHUTANI: (Through interpreter) I do not have authority over the family to prevent them from leaving. But I tell them, think about it. Why? Because the Arab region lost many Christians.

FORDHAM: Father Ghassan hopes the pope's visit will strengthen people's resolve to stay.

BHUTANI: (Through interpreter) Through his words, they will feel a little, the Christians, this heritage, these roots of theirs.

FORDHAM: Pope Francis' tour will also take him to places where there are almost no Christians, where most everyone is Muslim. One is the ruins of the ancient city of Ur, which, according to scripture, was the birthplace of the patriarch Abraham.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FORDHAM: Gardeners and construction workers are sprucing things up at the historic site while officials are busily planning the papal ceremony next to the sun-baked ruins.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FORDHAM: There's even a busload of tourists who insist on playing pop music while they take selfies on the reconstructed pyramid called a ziggurat.

BIDOOR AL ASADY: I'm so excited. It's a very important thing. For months, I'm waiting for that.

FORDHAM: Student Bidoor al Asady lives nearby and decided to visit the site when she heard the pope was coming.

ASADY: Because the very important thing is that we want to - everyone see what we have. It's very important, the history. And we are very proud of this.

FORDHAM: She's Muslim and says Abraham is important in the Quran. So the site in Ur, known to Iraqis as the House of Abraham, is special for Christians and Muslims here. The site director, Ali Kadhim, says monotheism began here and notes the central importance of Abraham for Christianity, Islam and Judaism. He says the pope's visit isn't only important for Iraq's Christian community.

ALI KADHIM: (Through interpreter) On the contrary, Muslims welcome this visit, and they're interested in it because it reflects the reality of relations between religions in Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Chanting in Arabic).

FORDHAM: In the nearby city of Nasiriyah, schoolteacher Hussein al Salehi tells me he hopes Christian tourists will follow the pope's visit. It would be good for the struggling local economy.

HUSSEIN AL SALEHI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: The pope's visit is a message of reassurance, he says, that there are people here who respect and value all religions. And it is a message Iraq needs.

Alice Fordham, NPR News, Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.