Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi walks with Pope Francis upon his arrival at Baghdad International Airport on Friday. Reuters
Pope Francis called for an end to extremism and violence in his opening address Friday on the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, long scarred by war and now gripped by coronavirus.
The 84-year-old is defying a second wave of the global pandemic and renewed security fears to make a "long-awaited" trip to comfort one of the world's oldest Christian communities, while also deepening his dialogue with Muslims.
"May there be an end to acts of violence and extremism, factions and intolerance!" urged Francis in the stirring address, his first after arriving in Iraq.
Francis landed in the afternoon at Baghdad's International Airport, where he was greeted by Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhemi, as well as groups showcasing Iraq's diverse folklore music and dance.
He then met President Barham Salih — who had extended the official invitation to the pontiff in 2019 — as well as other government and religious figures.
Pope Francis disembarks a plane as he arrives at Baghdad International Airport. Reuters
At the imposing presidential palace, the head of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics gave a moving address, stressing the deep roots of Christianity in Iraq.
"The age-old presence of Christians in this land, and their contributions to the life of the nation, constitute a rich heritage that they wish to continue to place at the service of all," said Pope Francis.
He also urged Iraqi officials to "combat the scourge of corruption, misuse of power and disregard for law," in a country consistently ranked one of the most graft-tainted by Transparency International.
"It's impossible to imagine the Middle East without Christians," said Salih, while meeting the Pope. "Our region will not see any success unless it guarantees the return of its Christians, without hate."
The Pope, a prominent promoter of interfaith dialogue, also hailed other devastated Iraqi minorities. "Here, among so many who have suffered, my thoughts turn to the Yazidis, innocent victims of senseless and brutal atrocities," he said.
Just like Iraq's Christian population, the esoteric Yazidi community was ravaged in 2014 by Daesh group's sweep over much of northern Iraq.
'Victory' over death
The trip is the pontiff's first travel abroad since the coronavirus pandemic, which had left him feeling "caged" in Vatican City — and it has been hailed as a bold choice.
Iraq endured decades of war, is still hunting for Daesh cells and is now facing a second spike of COVID-19 infections, with more than 5,000 new cases and dozens of deaths daily.
President Barham Salih, his wife Sarbagh Salih, and Pope Francis attend a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace. Reuters
Earlier during the day Pope arrived inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq’s government, to meet with President Barham Salih and other officials. Horsemen carrying both Iraqi and Vatican flags escorted his motorcade inside the Green Zone, which houses key government buildings and foreign embassies.
Salih greeted Francis outside the presidential palace. Both men wore masks as a band played the Vatican and Iraqi national anthems. Francis, who has been vaccinated along with his entourage, shook hands with several Iraqi officials. Public health experts have expressed concern about the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, fearing it could accelerate the country's already worsening coronavirus outbreak.
Pope Francis' welcome ceremony at Baghdad's airport. AFP
Authorities have imposed a full lockdown through the papal trip, which means Francis will not be greeted by massive crowds of believers like on other foreign trips.
The Pope has been vaccinated and was seen taking off his mask on Friday to speak with officials and religious figures in Baghdad, just days after Iraq launched its modest inoculation campaign.
"I'll try to follow directions and not shake hands with everyone, but I don't want to stay too far," Francis said ahead of his arrival. He was also seen walking with a slight limp, likely a result of a painful bout of sciatica that he has suffered this year.
Inside the country, he will travel more than 1,400 kilometres by plane and helicopter, flying over areas where security forces are still battling Daesh. For shorter trips, Francis will take an armoured car on freshly paved roads lined with flowers and posters welcoming him warmly as "Baba Al Vatican."
"I am happy to be making trips again," he said in brief comments to reporters aboard his 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.
Pope Francis is welcomed by Iraqi President Barham Saleh (R) at the presidential palace in Baghdad. AFP
On Friday afternoon, he addressed the faithful at the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad's commercial Karrada district, where attendance was restricted to allow for social distancing.
In 2010, militants stormed the church and killed 44 worshippers, two priests and several security force personnel in one of the bloodiest attacks on Iraq's Christians.
Now, stained-glass windows at the church bear the victims' names and a defiant message above the altar reads, "Where is your victory, oh death?"
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi welcomes Pope Francis at Baghdad Airport. AFP
There, Francis thanked his fellow clergy for remaining close to Iraq's beleaguered Christians, who he said had paid "the ultimate price" there.
"We are gathered in this Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, hallowed by the blood of our brothers and sisters who here paid the ultimate price of their fidelity to the Lord and his Church," he said.
Meeting 'revered' Sistani
The Pope has insisted on going ahead with the visit despite resurgent violence, including rocket attacks that have left three people dead in recent weeks.
On the eve of Francis's arrival, one shadowy group that claimed a recent rocket attack said it would "halt all military activity" during his visit.
The Pope's determination to travel to areas long shunned by foreign dignitaries has impressed many in Iraq -- as has his planned one-on-one with the top authority for the country's Shiites.
The reclusive but highly revered Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, 90, will host the Pope at his humble home in the shrine city of Najaf. The meeting will be a major step in deepening ties to Shiite Muslims, who are majority in Iraq but a minority globally.
"Despite a broad shift away from religion around the world, the reverence for Sistani is unmoved," said Marsin Alshamary, a Brookings Institute research fellow.
Banners all over Najaf have celebrated "the historic encounter, between the minarets and the church bells." Francis, a major supporter of inter-religious dialogue, will then hold an interfaith service at the desert site of Ur, where Abraham is thought to have been born.
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."
Pope Francis, the pioneering head of over a billion Roman Catholics, always takes the road less travelled. He is indeed a unique face of the papacy. On Friday, he started his visit to Iraq, his first sojourn abroad since the coronavirus pandemic broke
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