Several top Church officials in Syria, including the Vatican’s ambassador to the country, have praised Pope Francis’s visit to Iraq earlier this month, saying the visit sent a message of hope to the entire region.
Speaking during a virtual press conference for the 10th anniversary of the start of the war in Syria, Cardinal Mario Zenari, papal nuncio to Syria, said “The pope’s trip to Iraq was very encouraging for all people of Syria, and beyond the people of Syria.”
“Many Christians followed through TV, especially on Lebanese TV, and some also went across the border,” he said, adding that to his knowledge, at least two bishops, several priests, and a group of young people crossed the border into Iraq to take part in some of the papal activities.
Pope Francis fulfilled the dream of several of his predecessors when he visited Iraq March 5-8, marking the first time a pope had ever set foot in the country. During the historic 3-day visit, Francis made stops in Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul, Qaraqosh, Najaf, and the Plain of Ur.
Given the years of war, violent persecution, and economic difficulty Christians and others in Iraq have endured over the past decades, and given Iraq’s strategic position in the Middle East, the trip was followed closely by political leaders throughout the world, including US President Joe Biden, and especially by neighboring countries in the region.
“Beyond the Christian population of Syria, it spread all over the sectors of the Syrian population,” Zenari said, noting that ever since the pope’s trip, he has received diplomats from all over the world in his capacity as the Vatican’s ambassador to Syria, all of whom have shown immense interest in the visit.
Both Christian and non-Christian diplomats alike have “praised this visit to Iraq a lot, and some of them asked, when is the Pope coming to Syria?”
“I must assure you that Syria is far, far from being forgotten by Pope Francis. Syria remains in his heart, and I can interpret him saying that as soon as the circumstances allow, certainly the pope will visit Syria,” Zenari said.
Zenari recalled Pope John Paul II’s visit to Syria in 2001, in which John Paul made headlines for becoming the first pope to visit a mosque when he toured the Great Omayyad mosque in Damascus.
A relic of St. John the Baptist is housed inside the mosque, which was venerated by Pope John Paul II during his visit. Zenari said that he often visits the relic himself, and that whenever he does, he sees others, including Muslims, stopping to pray there.
Similarly, Jean-Abdo Arbach, Melkite archbishop of Homs, said the pope’s visit to Iraq was “very important,” and left an impression for Syrians beyond the Christian community.
“Many Muslims appreciated the humbleness of His Holiness and his love toward the Iraqis and all people. It was very important. It was a message of peace and a message of hope to the entire region,” he said.