Pope Francis is set to arrive in Iraq on Friday for the first ever papal visit to the country, despite recent rocket attacks and suicide bombings as well as a surge in coronavirus cases.
Drones will monitor the routes the leader will take, explosives and counter-terrorism teams will be on stand-by and thousands of additional security personnel deployed to guard him as he tours six cities during his three-day whistle stop tour.
Among the places he will visit are former the Isis stronghold of Mosul, where he will meet Iraq’s top Shia cleric, grand ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf and the ancient Mesopotamian site of Ur. At Ur, the birthplace of the prophet Abraham who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, he will hold an interfaith gathering.
Francis will initially land in Baghdad where, on the morning of his arrival, checkpoints manned by heavily armed officers were set up across the main intersections for security and to impose a weekend-long around the clock coronavirus curfew as the country struggles to contain the virus.
There have been mounting concerns about the 84-year-old’s safety after a barrage of rockets hit a base holding US forces in western Iraq just two days before he was due to arrive, the latest in a slew of tit-for-tat attacks.
In January, Baghdad suffered its first major suicide bombing in three years when two people blew themselves up at a crowded market, killing more than 30.
But Pope Francis has vowed to travel regardless, saying this week that “the people cannot be let down for a second time”.
Pope John Paul II had to cancel a planned trip in 2000 after talks with the government of then-leader Saddam Hussein collapsed.
Pope Francis said for that reason his trip must go ahead, adding it was an “act of love” to show solidarity with Iraq’s devastated Christian population which after militant attacks and Isis’s takeover has shrunk from over a million before the US invasion in 2003 to just over 200,000 now.
That said, the Vatican has admitted that there will be additional security precautions taken because of the dangers of the trip.
The Pope has in the past ditched the bulletproof “Popemobiles” used by his predecessors in favour of open top vehicles but Matteo Bruni, a Vatican spokesman, said on Tuesday that “it is much more probable, possible that an armoured car will be used.”
The papal entourage have all been vaccinated ahead of the trip to Iraq, where the number of coronavirus cases was breaking daily records. On Wednesday the country recorded more than 5,000 cases, the highest daily infection rate since the start of the pandemic.
Iraqi security officials were taking no chances and told Reuters that the forces involved had been trained to deal with worst-case scenarios, from street battles to bombings and rocket attacks.
They said that undercover intelligence and national security officers will also be deployed at the gatherings attended by the pope while a technical team can also jam or cut off suspicious phone calls or radio communications.
Drones monitor the routes around the clock while there will be a security cordon around the pope wherever he goes.
Vatican officials have they are satisfied that Iraqi forces will be able to provide adequate protection for the Pope and his entourage.
Clerics in Baghdad agreed, saying the Pope will be protected for his “vital” trip.
“It is a sign of hope, and the beginning of change, for Christians and all minorities in Iraq as the last ten years have been very difficult with Al-Qaeda and later Isis,” said Father Nadir Dakov of Baghdad’s St Joseph Chaldean church where the Pope will celebrate mass on Saturday night.
“Many of these Christians fled from their homelands to different places just to survive. We want to change this before it’s too late,” he added.
Areas around the sites the pope will be visiting, including St Joseph, have been given a makeover for the occasion.
Roads he is expected to use have been remade, while dozens of workers have been applying fresh paint to pavement, walls as well as tending to gardens surrounding the buildings.
Across Baghdad streets were festooned with Iraqi and Vatican flags as well as billboards, posters and murals depicting Francis.
Christians see the visit as an important sign of solidarity after years of persecution and violence which has driven tens of thousands to leave their homes, but some are worried that it will serve as little more than a public relations exercise.
“A lot of world leaders and people have refused to come to Iraq because of the security situation so it is important that he has decided to visit despite the potential dangers,“ said Jameel, 32, a Christian from Qaraqosh in northern Iraq where the Pope will also visit. His family members were kidnapped by Isis.
“We know this will bring hope – but we need action and change.”