Pope Francis has called for an end to violence and extremism, on his first ever visit to Iraq.
The pontiff is making his first international trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Covid and security fears have made this his riskiest visit yet, but the 84-year-old insisted he was “duty bound”. He also said Iraq’s dwindling Christian community should have a more prominent role as citizens with full rights, freedoms and responsibilities. He is hoping to foster inter-religious dialogue – meeting Iraq’s most revered Shia Muslim cleric – and will celebrate Mass at a stadium in Irbil in the north.
About 10,000 Iraqi Security Forces personnel are being deployed to protect the Pope, while round-the-clock curfews are also being imposed to limit the spread of Covid.
Iraq’s PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi greeted him at the airport, with a red carpet, Iraqis in national dress and songs from a largely unmasked choir. Hundreds of people lined the airport road as the Pope’s convoy, heavily chaperoned by police motorcycles, left for the city.
In a speech after being welcomed by Iraqi President Barham Salih, Pope Francis said he was very pleased to come to Iraq, which he described as the “cradle of civilisation”. “May there be an end to acts of violence and extremism, factions and intolerance!” he said. The Pope has often alluded to Iraq’s years of suffering in military conflicts and as a result of acts of terrorism.
He turned to the country’s Christians, who he said should have a greater role in public life. “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,” he said. He had earlier said Iraqi Christians could not be “let down for a second time”, after Pope John Paul II cancelled plans for a trip in 1999 when talks with then-President Saddam Hussein’s government broke down.
In the two decades since then, one of the world’s oldest Christian communities has seen its numbers plummet from 1.4 million to about 250,000, less than 1% of the population.
Many have fled abroad to escape the violence that has plagued the country since the US-led invasion in 2003 that ousted Saddam.
Tens of thousands were also displaced when Islamic State (IS) militants overran northern Iraq in 2014, destroying their historic churches, seizing their property, and giving them the choice to pay a tax, convert, leave or face death.