Pope Francis makes historic visit to Iraq, urging peace toward Christians

World

BAGHDAD (NewsNation Now) — Pope Francis has arrived in Iraq on a visit to rally the country’s dwindling Christian community after decades of war.

The pontiff left Rome Friday to start a four-day trip to Iraq, the first visit by a pontiff to the country and his most risky foreign trip since his election in 2012 in light of the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns. He is expected to urge the country’s dwindling number of Christians to stay put and help rebuild the country after years of war and persecution.

Iraqis were keen to welcome him and the global attention his visit will bring, with banners and posters hanging high in central Baghdad, and billboards depicting Francis with the slogan “We are all Brothers” decorating the main thoroughfare.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said Iraqis were eager to welcome Francis’ “message of peace and tolerance” and described the visit as a historic meeting between the “minaret and the bells.”

The government is eager to show off the security it has achieved after years of wars and militant attacks that nevertheless continue.

Iraq is deploying thousands of additional security personnel to protect Francis during the visit, which comes after a spate of rocket and suicide bomb attacks raised fears for the Catholic leader’s safety. Francis and the Vatican delegation are relying on those security forces to protect them, including with the expected first use of an armored car for the popemobile-loving pontiff.

As recent as Wednesday, 10 rockets landed on an airbase that hosts U.S., coalition and Iraqi forces. Hours after that attack, the pope reaffirmed he would be going to Iraq.

Francis is breaking his year-long COVID-19 lockdown to refocus the world’s attention on a largely neglected people whose northern Christian communities, which date from the time of Christ, were largely emptied during the violent Islamic State reign from 2014-2017.

In Iraq, the Vatican is seeking to deliver a message of reconciliation and fraternity.

“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 this week. The aim of Francis’ visit, he said, is to encourage them to “hold onto hope.”

The visit comes as Iraq is seeing a new spike in coronavirus infections, with most new cases traced to the highly contagious variant first identified in Britain. The 84-year-old pope, the Vatican delegation and traveling media have been vaccinated; most Iraqis have not.

The Vatican and Iraqi authorities have insisted that social distancing, crowd control and other health care measures will be enforced. The Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, said this week the important thing is for Iraqis to know that the pope came to Iraq as an “act of love.”

“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 84-year-old will visit four cities, including the former Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, where churches and other buildings still bear the scars of conflict.

Francis will pray in the Baghdad church that was the site of one of the worst massacres of Christians, the 2010 attack by Islamic militants that left 58 people dead. He will honor the dead in a Mosul square surrounded by shells of destroyed churches and meet with the small Christian community that returned to Qaraqosh, where he will bless their church that was used as a firing range by IS.

Francis will also visit Ur, birthplace of the prophet Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, and meet Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

The trip is the pope’s 33rd outside Italy. He is due to return to Rome on Monday morning.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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