Returning from Iraq, Pope Affirms Lebanon As Next Middle East Trip During In-Flight Press Conference

On Papal Flight, Responds to Journalists About Syria, Argentina, His Energy Level, & Future Plans

Pope on return flight from Iraq - Copyright: Vatican Media
Pope on return flight from Iraq - Copyright: Vatican Media

A trip to Lebanon remains an important priority, while one to Syria is not foreseen, even if the suffering nation remains very dear to the Pope’s heart. Pope Francis expressed this as he responded to many questions posed to him by the journalists during the flight bringing them back to Rome from Iraq.

Read the Full Text of the Press Conference Here.

After a whirlwind March 5-8 apostolic trip to Iraq, the papal flight took off from Baghdad International Airport at 9:54 am local time (7.54 Rome time) and landed at Rome’s Ciampino Airport at 12:20.

As is customary, returning from the airport, the Holy Father stopped at Rome’s Marian Basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore, to pray before the Blessed Mother, specifically to thank her for the fruits of his trip and to leave her flowers he brought back from Iraq.

During the in-flight press conference, the Holy Father responded to a variety of questions, where he expressed satisfaction and joy about his recent trip.

However, first he thanked the journalists before him for their work, company and their “exhaustion.” He acknowledged that March 8th marks International Women’s Day, and while congratulating all women, joked about why not a men’s day.

The Argentinian Pontiff then recalled how the Iraqi president’s wife spoke to him about women, highlighting their strength, in bringing life, family, and many things.

In the Footsteps of Abu Dhabi, With Shiite Muslims

A journalist recalled that two years ago in Abu Dhabi, for the first visit of a Pope to the Arabian Peninsula, there was a meeting with the Grand Imam of Al Ahzar, Al Tayyeb, the most influential leader in Sunni Islam (Islam’s largest branch) and a historic signing of the Document on Human Fraternity. Recalling Saturday, March 6, the Pope had a historic meeting with leader of Iraqi Shiite Muslims, Ayatollah Al Sistani, he asked whether one could expect a similar gesture with Shiite Muslims too. To this, the Pope expressed his interest in taking time, praying and pursuing dialogue.

Another question asked to what extent is the meeting with Al Sistani a message also to the religious leaders of Iran.

“I believe,” the Holy Father noted, “it was a universal message, I felt the duty of this pilgrimage of faith and penance to go and find a great, a wise man, a man of God… He is a person who has that wisdom and also prudence. He told me: ‘For 10 years, he told me, I have not received people who come, yes, to visit me but with other political or cultural purposes that are not so religious.'”

“He was very respectful in the meeting,” the Pope said, noting: “I felt honored because he also in greeting, never gets up, he got up to greet me twice. He is a humble and wise man, this meeting did my soul good. It is a light.”

Lebanon … a Visit, Not Crumbs

The Holy Father instead reaffirmed his intent to visit Lebanon.

“The Patriarch [Cardinal Rai] asked me to make a stopover to Beirut in this trip, but to me it seemed a bit… a bit too little, a crumb…. in front of a problem, a country that suffers like Lebanon. I wrote a letter and I wrote a promise and I promised I would go to Lebanon.”

Reminding “Lebanon suffers,” Francis underscored the Middle Eastern nation has a “weakness of still unreconciled differences but has the strength of a great reconciled people, like the strength of the cedars.”

“Lebanon at this moment,” Francis lamented, “is in crisis, in a crisis of life, I do not want to offend but it is in a crisis of life! Lebanon is so generous, Lebanon, in welcoming refugees… This is the second trip.”

Another acknowledged the riskiness of this trip, and asked whether he were afraid at any time during your trip. They also noted he soon will celebrate the eighth year of his pontificate, and asked: “do you still think it will be short? Finally, the big question: Will you return again to Argentina?”

Already 76 Years in Argentina

Francis recalled his interview in a recent book, where the author asked him: ‘if you resign – if I die or resign – will you go back to Argentina or will you stay here?’

“I said,” the Pope continued, “I will not go back to Argentina, but I will stay here in my diocese. But in that hypothesis, this goes together with the question: when I go to Argentina or why don’t I go there … I always answer a little ironically: I was 76 years in Argentina, is it enough right?”

He reminded that a trip to Argentina was planned in November 2017, but various reasons made such a trip become increasingly complicated.

Reflecting on his travels, he shared: “To make a decision on travel I listen, I listen to the advice of the advisors and sometimes someone comes and says: what do you think I have to go to that place? It is good for me to listen, this helps me to make decisions later on. I listen to the advisors and in the end I pray, I reflect a lot. Then the decision comes from within, from the belly, almost spontaneous but as a ripe fruit. It is a long journey.”

Some decisions he noted are more difficult or easy than others.

In addition to meetings with Iraqi ambassadors and the president, the Pope recalled when Argentinian journalist and friend, Elisabetta Pique, gave him the latest Spanish edition of “The Last Girl” by Nadia Mourad.

Saying he read this story of the Yazidis, Francis admitted this book was an underlying reason for his decision. “That book worked inside me,” he said.

Energy in Eighth Year of Pontificate

“Then the eighth year of the pontificate. Should I do this? (cross your fingers)”

“I don’t know if the trips will come true or not, only I confess that in this trip I got tired much more than in the others . The 84 years do not come alone, it is a consequence but we will see. Now I will have to go to Hungary to the final Mass of the International Eucharistic Congress, not a visit to the country, to the Mass.”

“But Budapest is a two hour drive from Bratislava, why not pay a visit to Slovakia?” he said.

Also reflecting in another question about those refugees who have been persecuted and forced to flee, Francis said: “I too would like to thank the generous countries, the countries that receive migrants: Lebanon is generous with migrants, Jordan… Unfortunately we will not pass over Jordan, King Abdullah is so kind that he wanted to pay us homage with airplanes. I thank him now. Jordan is very generous, more than 1.5 million migrants. And many other countries too. Thanks to these generous countries, thank you very much.”

Someone asked if when looking at the Middle East, whether the Pope is considering a trip to Syria, and other destinations in the region where he believes his presence could be required.

“In the Middle East, only the hypothesis and also the promise is Lebanon. I didn’t think about a trip to Syria, because I didn’t get the inspiration. But I am so close to the tormented and beloved Syria, I call it. I remember at the beginning of the pontificate that afternoon of prayer in St. Peter’s Square, there was the rosary, the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. But how many Muslims, how many Muslims, with the carpet, prayed with us for peace in Syria, to stop the bombing at that moment when it was said that it would be a ferocious bombing.

“I carry Syria in my heart, but thinking about a trip,” he clarified, “did not come to me at this moment.”

He was asked about the encounter with community in Qaraqosh, and also his feelings about being among the people in this period in general.

“I feel different when I am away from the people in the audiences,” he shared, expressing: “I would like to restart the General Audiences soon. We hope that there are the conditions in this I follow the norms of the authorities, and they have the grace of God to help us, but they are those responsible in giving the rules, whether we like it or not, but they are responsible and they must do so.”

“Now I have started the Angelus in the square, with distances it can be done. There is a proposal for small general audiences but I have not decided.

“Until the development of the situation becomes clear, but after these months in prison–because I really felt a bit imprisoned–this for me is living again, returning to life because it is touching the Church, the holy people of God, all peoples.”

A priest, he stated, becomes a priest to serve the holy people of God, at the service of the holy people of God, not for  other reasons. “Contact with the people saves us, helps us,” he said. “We give the people the Eucharist, it is our function, but,” he added, “they [the people] give us belonging. Do not forget this belonging to the holy people of God.”

Impact of Iraqi Suffering

Reflecting on Qaraqosh and Mosul, he said: “I could not imagine the ruins of Mosul and Qaraqosh, I could not imagine. I have really seen things…This was sobering.”

The testimony of a mother in Qaraqosh struck me. I was moved by the testimonies of a a priest who truly knows poverty, service and penance, and of this woman who lost her son in the first Daesh bombings gave a testimony. Her and their call to forgiveness, he said, is what struck him most in Qaraqosh.

“About Mosul, I have said a little in passing what I have heard. I stopped in front of a destroyed church. I had no words, couldn’t believe [it], so hard to believe … Not only the church but also the other churches, even a destroyed mosque…”

He lamented these deplorable examples of human cruelty.

“Let’s look at Africa, let’s look at Africa, which with our experience of Mosul of destroyed churches creates enmity, war and also the so-called Islamic state begins to act. This is a bad thing, a very bad thing.”

“Another question,” he continued, “that came to my mind in the Church is this: But who sells weapons to these destroyers? Who really is responsible?” He emphasized the gravity of this phenomenon.

After the Director of the Holy See Press Office, Matteo Bruni, thanked the Holy Father after having dedicated a good hour to the journalists’ questions, Francis wished those present a good end of the journey and asked them to pray for him, saying he is in need of the prayers.