Pope Francis has arrived in Iraq for the first-ever papal visit there, and 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 will try to reassure the dwindling Christian community and foster inter-religious dialogue – meeting Iraq’s most revered Shia Muslim cleric.
The Pope will also 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 the Pope at the airport. On the plane, Francis said he was happy to be travelling again, adding: “This is an emblematic trip and it is a duty towards a land that has been martyred for so many years.”
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.
Addressing the Iraqi people in a video message on the eve of his trip, Pope Francis said he was “coming as a pilgrim, as a penitent pilgrim, to implore from the Lord forgiveness and reconciliation after years of war and terrorism”.
He continued: “I am coming among you also as a pilgrim of peace… seeking fraternity and prompted by the desire to pray together and to walk together, also with our brothers and sisters of other religious traditions, in the steps of Father Abraham, who joins in one family Muslims, Jews and Christians.”
Ahead of the visit, Christians who fled to Irbil in Iraq’s Kurdistan region after the IS invaded the Nineveh Plain to the west in 2014, urged the Pope to help them.
Alla Hana Shaba told the Rudow network: “We want the Pope to help the displaced find a place to settle. We have lost our houses and money.”
Another Christian from the north, Saad al-Rassam, told AFP: “We’re hoping the Pope will explain to the government that it needs to help its people. We have suffered so much, we need the support.”