Pope Francis landed in Iraq for a historic tour of the war-ravaged nation, where he is expected to meet with members of the country’s dwindling Christian community and draw attention to their plight.
The trip, which marks the first-ever papacy visit to Iraq, also includes meetings with the country’s top political and religious officials. It is the pontiff’s first trip outside of Italy since the start of the pandemic.
“I am happy to start trips again and this is a symbolic trip. It’s a duty,” the Pope told journalists traveling with him on the papal plane. “It has been a martyred land for too long.”
On Friday, the pontiff held meetings with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and President Barham Salih. Rows of traditional dancers, none of whom wore masks, greeted the Pope as he arrived at Baghdad International Airport.
He will later meet with clerics and other officials at a Baghdad church that was the site of a bloody 2010 massacre.
Francis was widely expected to cancel the visit after a surge in coronavirus cases gripped Iraq in recent weeks, and a spate of new rocket attacks deepened security fears. But the Pope insisted that the visit go on as scheduled, referring to Iraq’s ancient Christian community as “that martyred Church.”
Iraqi officials have hailed the visit as an important moment for the country, while privately admitting that the timing of the trip has proved a challenge for authorities.
Pope Francis and his entourage have all been vaccinated.
Thought to be one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, prior to the 2003 US invasion, there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Around 80% of them have since fled, according to leading Christian clerics there.
Members of the Christian minority, which was the target of repeated attacks by extremists, say they hope the papal visit will underscore the neglect they feel they have endured from Iraq’s authorities.