‘Pilgrim of peace’ Pope Francis begins historic visit to Iraq
ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Pope Francis made history as his plane touched down Iraq’s capital Baghdad on Friday for what he described as his pilgrimage of peace to the region.
Early on Friday, the 84-year-old pontiff and his entourage left the Italian capital Rome for Baghdad, beginning a three-day visit to the country and its Kurdistan Region, where he will meet with top religious and political figures.
After the pope’s Alitalia flight landed at Baghdad International Airport on Friday afternoon, he was greeted by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi before heading to the Baghdad Presidential Palace to meet Iraqi President Barham Salih.
Following his meeting with the Iraqi president on Friday, he is scheduled to pay a visit to Our Lady of Salvation Syro-Catholic Church in Baghdad, which witnessed a bloody terrorist attack in 2010. He will meet with bishops, priests, religious orders, seminarians and catechists, according to his press office.
The pope’s visit comes as Iraq grapples with a number of health and security challenges, including the surging COVID-19 pandemic and regular rocket attacks on military and diplomatic missions.
On March 7, the pope will visit the autonomous Kurdistan Region, where he will meet with top officials, including Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, and will later hold a Mass at Franso Hariri Stadium for nearly 10,000 attendees, an organizer told Kurdistan 24.
Iraq has visibly tightened security for the pope’s visit, especially in Baghdad. The pope left the Baghdad airport in a high-security motorcade, being protected from the sky as well.
Similar measures are expected to be taken when he visits the Kurdistan Region on Sunday as Barzani announced previously that his government would provide “maximum security” for a safe papal trip.
The Iraqi government recently paved roads, cleaned debris, and colored walls in a bid to beautify the provinces as part of preparations for the papal visit. Some citizens in the areas which normally lack services mockingly asked Francis on social media to visit their areas, so they can see improvements.
The papal visit is the source of hope for the country’s Christians as their population has declined since 2003 from 1.5 million to less than 400,000 adherents, according to AFP.
The decline was further fueled by the fight against the Islamic State as the terror group ravaged Christian-populated areas in 2014, particularly in the Nineveh Plain in the northern part of Iraq.
Editing by Joanne Stocker-Kelly