Pope Francis landed Friday in Iraq to start his long-anticipated visit to the country on a mission to encourage the minority Christian population, ignoring health and security concerns as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
The visit will be the first visit by a pope to the war-torn region.
The three-day trip will culminate in a private meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s top Shiite cleric and a revered figure in the Islamic world.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi greeted the pope as he disembarked his plane in Baghdad around 2 p.m. local time. Hundreds of people gathered along the airport road to wave to the pope and greet him.
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Tahsin al-Khafaji, spokesman for Iraq’s joint operations, said security forces had been increased.
“This visit is really important to us and provides a good perspective of Iraq because the whole world will be watching,” al-Khafaji said, adding that the high stakes will give Iraqi forces “motivation to achieve this visit with safety and peace.”
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The pope’s visit aims to urge the country’s dwindling Christian population to remain in the country and help rebuild it following years of war and persecution. He will also honor martyrs in the country as he attempts to heal deep mistrust between the Christian and Muslim populations.
“The Pope’s visit is to support the Christians in Iraq to stay, and to say that they are not forgotten,” the Chaldean patriarch, Cardinal Luis Sako, told reporters in Baghdad. The aim of Francis’ visit, he said, is to encourage them to “hold onto hope.”
The chief security concern is the spiking coronavirus pandemic: cases in Iraq have risen over the past month, almost tripling in that time. The 84-year-old pope, the Vatican delegation and traveling media have all been vaccinated; most Iraqis have not.
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“I come among you as a pilgrim of peace, to repeat ‘you are all brothers,’” Francis said in a video message to the Iraqi people on the eve of his visit. “I come as a pilgrim of peace in search of fraternity, animated by the desire to pray together and walk together, also with brothers and sisters of other religious traditions.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Peter Aitken is a New York born-and-raised reporter with a focus on national and global news.