Pope Francis landed in war-battered Iraq Friday on the first-ever papal visit, defying security fears and the COVID-19 pandemic to comfort one of the world’s oldest and most persecuted Christian communities.
The 84-year-old, who said he was travelling to Iraq as a “pilgrim of peace”, will also reach out to Shiite Muslims when he meets Iraq’s top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
The pope left Rome early Friday for the four-day trip, his first abroad since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which left the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics saying he felt “caged” inside the Vatican.
“I’m happy to resume travel, and this symbolic trip is also a duty to a land that has been martyred for years,” he told journalists aboard his plane.
His plane landed at 1:55 pm (1055 GMT), waving the flags of both Vatican City and Iraq as it taxied on the tarmac at Baghdad International Airport, where Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi greeted him.
Francis was visibly limping in a sign his sciatica, which has flared and forced him to cancel events recently, was possibly bothering him.
While Francis has been vaccinated, Iraq has been gripped by a second wave of infection with 5,000 plus new cases a day, prompting authorities to impose a full lockdown during the pontiff’s visit.
“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.
Francis is breaking his year-long COVID-19 lockdown to refocus the world’s attention on a largely neglected people whose northern Christian communities, which date from the time of Christ, were largely emptied during the violent Islamic State reign from 2014-2017.
The Vatican and Iraqi authorities have downplayed the threat of the virus and insisted that social distancing, crowd control and other health care measures will be enforced.
A largely unmasked choir sang songs as both pope and premier made their way to a welcome area in the airport. People wandered around without masks, and the pope and the prime minister took theirs off as they sat down for their first meeting — seated less than two meters (yards) apart — and later stood next to each other shaking hands and chatting.
Hundreds of people had gathered along the airport road with hopes of catching a glimpse of the pope’s plane touching down.
Iraqis were keen to welcome him and the global attention his visit will bring, with banners and posters hanging high in central Baghdad, and billboards depicting Francis with the slogan “We are all Brothers” decorating the main thoroughfare. In central Tahrir square, a mock tree was erected emblazoned with the Vatican emblem, while Iraqi and Vatican flags lined empty streets.
The government is eager to show off the relative security it has achieved after years of wars and militant attacks that nevertheless continue even today. Francis and the Vatican delegation are relying on Iraqi security forces to protect them, including with the expected first use of an armored car for the popemobile-loving pontiff.
Tahsin al-Khafaji, spokesman for Iraq’s joint operations, said security forces had been increased.
“This visit is really important to us and provides a good perspective of Iraq because the whole world will be watching,” he said. The high stakes will give Iraqi forces “motivation to achieve this visit with safety and peace.”
For the pope, who has often travelled to places where Christians are a persecuted minority, Iraq’s beleaguered Christians are the epitome of the “martyred church” that he has admired ever since he was a young Jesuit seeking to be a missionary in Asia.
In Iraq, Francis is seeking to not only honor its martyrs but deliver a message of reconciliation and fraternity. The few Christians who remain in Iraq harbor a lingering mistrust of their Muslim neighbors and face structural discrimination long predating both IS and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that plunged the country into chaos.
Additional reporting from AFP and AP