Pope Francis landed in war-battered Iraq Friday on the first-ever papal visit, defying security fears and the pandemic to comfort one of the world’s oldest and most persecuted Christian communities.
His plane landed at 1:55 pm (1055 GMT) at Baghdad International Airport, where Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi will greet him.
“I’m happy to resume travel, and this symbolic trip is also a duty to a land that has been martyred for years,” Francis told journalists aboard his plane.
The 84-year-old, who said he was making the first-ever papal visit 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 journey, 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.
While Francis has been vaccinated, Iraq has been gripped by a second wave with a record of over 5,000 new cases a day, prompting authorities to impose full lockdowns during the pontiff’s visit.
Security will be tight in Iraq, which has endured years of war and insurgency, is still hunting for Islamic State sleeper cells, and days ago saw a barrage of rockets plough into a military base.
Francis will preside over a half-dozen services in ravaged churches, refurbished stadiums and remote desert locations, where attendance will be limited to allow for social distancing.
Inside the country, he will travel more than 1,400 kilometres (870 miles) by plane and helicopter, flying over areas where security forces are still battling IS remnants.
For shorter trips, Francis will take an armoured car on freshly paved roads that will be lined with flowers and posters welcoming the leader known here as “Baba Al-Vatican”.
The pope’s visit has deeply touched Iraq’s Christians, whose numbers have collapsed over years of persecution and sectarian violence, from 1.5 million in 2003 to fewer than 400,000 today.
“We’re hoping the pope will explain to the government that it needs to help its people,” a Christian from Iraq’s north, Saad al-Rassam, told AFP. “We have suffered so much, we need the support.”