Pope Francis arrives at Baghdad Airprot on March 5, 2021 on the primary papal go to to Iraq. — AFP

BAGHDAD: Pope Francis landed in war-battered Iraq Friday on a first-ever papal go to, defying safety fears and the pandemic to consolation one of many world’s oldest and most persecuted Christian communities.

The 84-year-old, who mentioned he was travelling to Iraq as a “pilgrim of peace”, can even meet Iraq’s prime cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

The pope left Rome early Friday for the four-day journey, his first overseas for the reason that onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which left the chief of the world’s 1.three billion Catholics saying he felt “caged” contained in the Vatican.

“I am blissful to renew journey, and this symbolic journey can also be an obligation to a land that has been martyred for years,” he informed journalists aboard his airplane.

His airplane landed at 1:55 pm (1055 GMT), waving the flags of each Vatican Metropolis and Iraq because it taxied on the tarmac at Baghdad Worldwide Airport, the place Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi greeted him.

“With love and peace, Iraq’s individuals and authorities are welcoming His Holiness Pope Francis and reaffirming the depths of this humanitarian bond,” Kadhemi mentioned forward of the pope’s arrival.

Whereas Francis has been vaccinated, Iraq has been gripped by a second wave of an infection with 5,000 plus new instances a day, prompting authorities to impose a full lockdown in the course of the pontiff’s go to.

“I am going to attempt to comply with instructions and never shake palms with everybody, however I do not need to keep too far,” Francis mentioned forward of his arrival.

‘We’ve got suffered a lot’

Safety will probably be tight in Iraq, which has endured years of warfare and insurgency, remains to be looking for Daesh sleeper cells and simply days in the past noticed a barrage of rockets plough right into a army base.

Overseas ministry spokesman Ahmad al-Sahhaf mentioned Iraqi authorities had imposed tight safety “over the land and air” to make sure the go to goes easily.

Francis will preside over a half dozen providers in ravaged church buildings, refurbished stadiums and distant desert areas, the place attendance will probably be restricted to permit for social distancing.

Contained in the nation, he’ll journey greater than 1,400 kilometres (870 miles) by airplane and helicopter, flying over areas the place safety forces are nonetheless battling Daesh remnants.

For shorter journeys, Francis will take an armoured automotive on freshly paved roads that will probably be lined with flowers and posters welcoming the chief recognized right here as “Baba Al-Vatican”.

The pope’s go to 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 right this moment.

“We’re hoping the pope will clarify to the federal government that it wants to assist its individuals,” a Christian from northern Iraq, Saad al-Rassam, informed AFP. “We’ve got suffered a lot, we’d like the assist.”

‘We left every thing’

The primary day of the pope’s bold itinerary will see him meet authorities officers and clerics within the capital Baghdad, together with on the Our Girl of Salvation church, the place a jihadist assault left dozens lifeless in 2010.

He can even go to the northern province of Nineveh, the place in 2014 Daesh pressured minorities to flee, convert to Islam or be put to demise.

“Individuals had just a few minutes to determine in the event that they needed to go away or be decapitated,” recalled Karam Qacha, a Chaldean Catholic priest in Nineveh.

“We left every thing — besides our religion.”

Some 100,000 individuals, round half of the province’s Christians, fled — of whom simply 36,000 have returned, based on Catholic charity “Help to the Church in Want”.

A 3rd of returnees need to depart completely, dismayed by Iraq’s rampant corruption, persecution and poverty, which now impacts 40 % of the inhabitants.

The exodus is a loss for all of Iraq, mentioned Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for the Oriental Church buildings and can accompany the pope to Iraq.

“A Center East with out Christians is like making an attempt to make bread with flour, however no yeast or salt,” he mentioned.

The go to goals not solely to encourage Christians to remain of their homeland, however even immediate some emigres to return, from close by Lebanon or Jordan, or from the far-flung diaspora in international locations like Canada or Australia.

In a video handle forward of the journey, Francis evoked “the injuries of family members left behind and houses deserted”.

“I come as a pilgrim, a penitent pilgrim to implore forgiveness and reconciliation from the Lord after years of warfare and terrorism.”

‘Minarets and church bells’

The pope has insisted on the go to regardless of resurging violence.

Rocket assaults throughout the nation have left three individuals lifeless in latest weeks, together with a US contractor who died Wednesday.

Francis’ dedication to journey to areas lengthy shunned by overseas dignitaries has impressed many in Iraq — as has his deliberate assembly with Sistani, 90.

A extremely reclusive determine who hardly ever accepts guests, Sistani will make an exception to host Francis at his humble dwelling within the shrine metropolis of Najaf on Saturday.

Banners throughout Najaf have celebrated “the historic encounter, between the minarets and the church bells”.

Francis, a significant supporter of inter-religious dialogue, will afterwards head to the desert web site of Ur, the place Abraham is assumed to have been born.

There, he’ll host an interfaith service that can deliver collectively not solely the Abrahamic religions but in addition embody followers of different beliefs, together with Yazidis and Sabeans.

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