Pope Francis will make a historic visit to Iraq in March, the Vatican said Monday, the first ever by a pontiff and which will include a trip to Mosul.
The 83-year-old has long spoken of his desire to visit the Middle Eastern country, where conflict has caused the number of Christians to fall dramatically over the past two decades.
Between March 5 and 8 next year, Francis will "visit Baghdad, the plain of Ur... the city of Erbil, as well as Mosul and Qaraqosh in the plain of Nineveh," spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement.
The pope's visit to the ancient city of Mosul in northern Iraq will be particularly significant, as the former stronghold of the Islamic State group.
Iraq's historic and diverse Christian communities have been devastated in the bloody sectarian warfare that followed the 2003 US-led invasion and the Islamic State group's sweep through a third of the country in 2014.
Communities of Assyrians, Armenians, Chaldeans, Protestants and more have all been directly targeted.
There are no reliable statistics on the number of Christians who fled Iraq during these consecutive waves of bloodshed.
According to William Warda, co-founder of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization, Christians who have remained in Iraq number up to 400,000, down from 1.5 million in 2003.
- Message of peace -
The trip will be the pope's first abroad since the coronavirus outbreak hit Italy, and the Vatican said the program would "take into consideration the evolution of the worldwide health emergency".
Francis said last year that Iraq was on his list for 2020, but he was forced to cancel all foreign trips in June as coronavirus swept across the globe.
At the time, he said he hoped Iraq could "face the future through the peaceful and 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."
President Barham Saleh had officially invited the pope to visit Iraq in July 2019, hoping it would help the country "heal" after years of strife.
The Iraqi foreign ministry on Monday welcomed news of his trip, saying: "It symbolizes a message of peace to Iraq and the whole region."
- 'Realization of a dream' -
The late pope, John Paul II, had also hoped to visit Iraq, but never made the trip.
He was one of the staunchest critics of then-US President George W. Bush's decision to go to war against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in what the pope feared would be seen as a clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam.
In 1999, John Paul II wanted to visit the ancient city of Ur of the Chaldees in southern Iraq. According to the Bible, it is where God first prayed to Abraham.
But there were significant concerns about security, and the United States and Britain also feared Saddam would seize upon it for propaganda purposes.
"The pope's visit will come as the realization of a dream of his predecessor, Pope St. John Paul II," the Vatican's news portal said.
Pope Francis has made boosting ties between Christianity and Islam a cornerstone of his papacy.
Last year he visited Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, where he hosted a historic public mass for an estimated 170,000 Catholics at a stadium, and Morocco.
The pope had already visited several Muslim countries in previous years, including Turkey in 2014, Azerbaijan in 2016 and Egypt in 2017.