Pope urges Iraqis to give peace a chance

Cornelia Mascio
Marzo 6, 2021

Francis will afterwards head to the desert site of Ur, where Abraham is thought to have been born.

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.

President Barham Saleh officially invited Francis to visit Iraq in July 2019 in hopes it would help the country "heal". Iraqi leaders from different political orientations gathered in welcoming the pope at the Baghdad Palace in the heart of the Green Zone; these included leaders of Islamic parties and the Popular Mobilization Units leaders and secular politicians from various groupings.

"May there be an end to acts of violence and extremism, factions and intolerance!" urged Francis in the stirring address, his first after arriving in Iraq.

Christians once made up a sizeable minority in Iraq, with an estimated 1.4 million.

Authorities have imposed a full lockdown through the papal trip, which means Francis will not be greeted by massive crowds of believers like on other foreign trips.

Public health experts have expressed concern about the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, fearing it could accelerate the country's already worsening coronavirus outbreak.

Pope Francis rolled down the window of his vehicle to wave at some of the hundreds of people who gathered to greet him as his motorcade rolled through Iraq's capital.

Since the defeat of the Islamic State militants in 2017, Iraq has seen a greater degree of security, though violence persists, often in the form of rocket attacks by Iran-aligned militias on USA targets, and U.S. military action in response.

Pope Francis arrived in Baghdad on Friday, beginning a three-day tour of the country to boost the fading Christian community and promote interfaith harmony.

Pope Francis delivers his speech during a meeting with bishops and priests, at the Sayidat al-Nejat (Our Lady of Salvation) Cathedral, in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, March 5, 2021.

Christians once constituted a sizeable minority in Iraq but their numbers began dwindling after the 2003 US -led invasion.

The pontiff will mark the first visit from a head of the Catholic Church to Iraq, after he was previously set to visit in 2020.

An Alitalia plane carrying him, his entourage, a security detail and about 75 journalists, touched down at Baghdad International Airport slightly ahead of schedule just before 2:00pm local time on Friday.

Christian leaders say that official and unofficial discrimination makes Christians and other minorities second-class citizens in the country, which is 98.5% Muslim.

In both of his speeches on Friday, the pope is likely to address the plight of Iraq's Christians, whose numbers have dropped from an estimated 1.4 million before the US -led invasion in 2003 to 250,000 or fewer today. Sunday will see him travel to the north of the country, including to Mosul, and lead prayers in areas retaken from Islamic State extremists.

Hours later, the Pope reaffirmed he would travel to Iraq.

The Alitalia flight, with both Vatican and Iraqi flags, carrying the Pope and his delegation landed just before 2pm (1100GMT). But the numbers began to fall after the 2003 United States-led invasion that removed Saddam Hussein from power. Many were not wearing masks and sat close to each other.

"What must never be locked down or reduced, however, is our apostolic zeal, drawn in your case from ancient roots, from the unbroken presence of the Church in these lands since earliest times", the pope said, referring to the adoption of Christianity in parts of what is now Iraq as early as the 1st century.

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