Pope Francis has begun a historic trip to war-battered Iraq, defying security fears and the pandemic to comfort one of the world’s oldest and most persecuted Christian communities.
The 84-year-old, who said he would make the first-ever papal visit to Iraq on Friday as a “pilgrim of peace,” will also reach out to Muslims when he meets Iraq’s top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
The four-day journey is the pope’s 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 Daesh sleeper cells, and days ago saw a barrage of rockets plough into a military base.
Pope 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 by plane and helicopter, flying over areas where security forces are still battling Daesh terror group remnants. 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 news agency. “We have suffered so much, we need the support.”