Pope begins historic visit to Iraq, leaves Rome for Baghdad

Pope Francis boards a plane as he departs for Iraq, March 5, 2021. (Social Media)

SULAIMANI (ESTA) — Pope Francis began his historic visit to Iraq on Friday despite virus and security risks.

Francis accompanied by a delegation left Rome’s Fiumicino airport for Baghdad on Friday morning and expected to arrive in Iraq in the afternoon.

The four-day trip is meant to reassure Iraq’s dwindling Christian community and foster inter-religious dialogue.

The trip by the 84-year-old leader of the world’s Catholics was announced in December, and will take in the capital Baghdad, as well as Ur, a city linked to the Old Testament figure of Abraham, and Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh in the plain of Nineveh.

The Pope will meet Iraq’s most revered Shia Muslim cleric, say a prayer in Mosul and celebrate Mass at Erbil stadium.

He has insisted on travelling despite a new spike in Covid-19 infections in Iraq and concerns over his security.

Francis said on Thursday that he would visit Iraq as a “pilgrimage of peace”, paying tribute to those who have suffered from years of violence.

“Tomorrow I will go to #Iraq for a three-day pilgrimage. I have long wanted to meet those people who have suffered so much. I ask you to accompany this apostolic journey with your prayers, so it may unfold in the best possible way and bear hoped-for fruits,” he said in a tweet.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi welcomed pope’s visit to the country, saying Mesopotamia will remain a “historic meeting place for common human values”.

“We, the Iraqi people & government, look forward to welcoming His Holiness Pope Francis. Mesopotamia has always been & will remain a historic meeting place for common human values. Welcome @Pontifex to the land of Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, the land of Prophets & civilisations,” Kadhimi said in a tweet.

On Tuesday, a spokesman for Francis said the pope would be travelling by armored vehicle and that he would not be meeting crowds.

“This is a particular situation, that’s why the transports will all be in a closed vehicle, meaning it will be complicated to see the pope on the streets,” AFP quoted spokesman Matteo Brunei as saying.

“There will be a number of meetings but none will be more than a few hundred people,” he added.

On his first day in Baghdad, Francis will meet with Catholic priests and nuns in the Our Lady of Salvation Church, the site of a 2010 massacre that killed 58 people and was claimed by the al-Qaida group in Iraq, according to AP.

The next day, he will host an interfaith meeting in the ancient day of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, after his meeting with Iraq’s top Shia Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf.

Francis will head to the Kurdistan Region on his last day trip in Iraq. He will visit Mosul and Qaraqosh in the Nineveh plains from the Region.

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