Pope Francis waves as he boards the plane for his visit to Iraq, at Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport in Rome. Reuters
Pope Francis headed to Iraq on Friday for his most risky foreign trip since his election in 2012, and said he felt duty-bound to make the “emblematic” visit because the country had suffered so much for so long.
An Alitalia plane carrying him, his entourage, a security detail, and about 75 journalists, left Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport for the 4-1/2-hour flight to Baghdad.
Iraq is deploying thousands of additional security personnel to protect the 84-year-old pope during the visit, which comes after a spate of rocket and suicide bomb attacks raised fears for his safety.
“I am happy to be making trips again,” he said in brief comments to reporters aboard the plane, alluding to the coronavirus pandemic which has prevented him from travelling. The Iraq trip is his first outside Italy since November 2019.
“This is an emblematic trip and it is a duty towards a land that has been martyred for so many years,” Francis said, before donning a mask and greeting each reporter individually, without shaking hands.
Francis’s whirlwind tour will take him by plane, helicopter and possibly armoured car to four cities, including areas that most foreign dignitaries are unable to reach, let alone in such a short space of time.
He will say Mass at a Baghdad church, meet Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric in the southern city of Najaf and travel north to Mosul, where the army had to empty the streets for security reasons last year for a visit by Iraq’s prime minister.
Mosul is a former Daesh stronghold, and churches and other buildings there still bear the scars of conflict.
VIOLENCE AND HOPE
Since the defeat of the Daesh militants in 2017, Iraq has seen a greater degree of security, though violence persists, often in the form of rocket attacks by Iran-aligned militias on US targets, and US military action in response.
On Wednesday 10 rockets landed on an airbase that hosts US, coalition and Iraqi forces. Hours later, Francis reaffirmed he would travel to Iraq.
Daesh also remains a threat. In January, a suicide attack claimed by the militant group killed 32 people in Baghdad’s deadliest such attack for years.
Francis will meet clergy at a Baghdad church where gunmen killed more than 50 worshippers in 2010. Violence against minority groups in Iraq, especially when a third of the country was being run by Daesh, has reduced its ancient Christian community to a fifth of its once 1.5 million people.
The pontiff will also visit Ur, birthplace of the prophet Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, and meet Iraq’s revered top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
The meeting with Sistani, who wields great influence over Iraq’s Shi’ite majority and in the country’s politics, will be the first by a pope.
Some Shi’ite militant groups have opposed the pope’s visit, framing it as Western interference in Iraq’s affairs, but many Iraqis hope that it can help foster a fresh view of Iraq.
“It might not change much on the ground, but at least if the pope visits, people will see our country in a different light, not just bombs and war,” said Ali Hassan, a 30-year-old Baghdad resident picking up relatives at the airport.
Francis waved one last time from before boarding a plane flying the Vatican and Iraqi flags from its cockpit windows. President Barham Salih accompanied the 84-year-old pontiff down a red carpet to his flight.
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Pope Francis is set to arrive in Baghdad today on the first ever visit of a Catholic pontiff to Iraq although its Christian communities are among the world’s most ancient.
In a tweet, Dr Ahmed said, "The historic and courageous visit of my brother Pope Francis to Iraq carries a message of peace, solidarity and support for all the Iraqi people. I pray for his success that this trip will achieve the hoped-for fruits on the path of human brotherhood."
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