Pope Francis has arrived in Iraq to urge the country’s dwindling number of Christians to stay put and help rebuild the country after years of war and persecution, brushing aside the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns to make his first papal visit to the country.
Francis, who wore a facemask during the flight, kept it on as he descended the stairs to the tarmac and was greeted by two masked children in traditional dress.
A red carpet was rolled out on the tarmac at Baghdad’s international airport with prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on hand to greet him.
A largely unmasked choir sang songs as the Pope and Mr al-Kadhimi made their way to a welcome area in the airport.
Iraqis were keen to welcome him and the global attention his visit will bring, with banners and posters hanging high in central Baghdad, and billboards depicting Francis with the slogan “We are all Brothers” decorating the main thoroughfare.
In central Tahrir square, a mock tree was erected emblazoned with the Vatican emblem, while Iraqi and Vatican flags lined empty streets.
Foreign minister Fuad Hussein said Iraqis were eager to welcome Francis’s “message of peace and tolerance” and described the visit as a historic meeting between the “minaret and the bells”.
Among the highlights of the three-day visit is a private meeting on Saturday with the country’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered figure in Iraq and beyond.
The government is eager to show off the relative security it has achieved after years of wars and militant attacks that continue even today. Francis and the Vatican delegation are relying on Iraqi security forces to protect them, including with the expected first use of an armoured car for the pontiff.
Tahsin al-Khafaji, spokesman for Iraq’s joint operations, said security forces had been increased.
“This visit is really important to us and provides a good perspective of Iraq because the whole world will be watching,” he said. The high stakes will give Iraqi forces “motivation to achieve this visit with safety and peace”.
Francis is breaking his year-long Covid-19 lockdown to refocus the world’s attention on a largely neglected people whose northern Christian communities, which date from the time of Christ, were largely emptied during the violent reign of the so-called Islamic State group from 2014-2017.
“The Pope’s visit is to support the Christians in Iraq to stay, and to say that they are not forgotten,” the Chaldean patriarch, Cardinal Luis Sako, told reporters in Baghdad this week. The aim of Francis’s visit, he said, is to encourage them to “hold on to hope”.
The visit comes as Iraq is seeing a new spike in coronavirus infections, with most new cases traced to the highly contagious variant first identified in Britain. The 84-year-old pope, the Vatican delegation and travelling media have been vaccinated, but most Iraqis have not.
The Vatican and Iraqi authorities have downplayed the threat of the virus and insisted that social distancing, crowd control and other health care measures will be enforced.
“I come among you as a pilgrim of peace, to repeat ‘you are all brothers’,” Francis said in a video message to the Iraqi people on the eve of his visit.
“I come as a pilgrim of peace in search of fraternity, animated by the desire to pray together and walk together, also with brothers and sisters of other religious traditions.”