Pope Francis departs Rome for risky, historic Iraq tour

ABOARD THE PAPAL Airplane (Reuters) – Pope Francis headed to Iraq on Friday for his most risky foreign vacation given that his election in 2012, and reported he felt obligation-certain to make the “emblematic” take a look at simply because the region experienced experienced so much for so very long.

Pope Francis waves as he boards the aircraft for his take a look at to Iraq, at Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport in Rome, Italy, March 5, 2021. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

An Alitalia plane carrying him, his entourage, a protection detail, and about 75 journalists, left Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport for the 4-1/2-hour flight to Baghdad.

Iraq is deploying countless numbers of further stability staff to protect the 84-calendar year-outdated pope all through the pay a visit to, which arrives right after a spate of rocket and suicide bomb attacks elevated fears for his safety.

“I am delighted to be producing journeys again,” he claimed in temporary feedback to reporters aboard the aircraft, alluding to the coronavirus pandemic which has prevented him from travelling. The Iraq journey is his to start with outside Italy due to the fact November 2019.

“This is an emblematic trip and it is a obligation in the direction of a land that has been martyred for so quite a few several years,” Francis mentioned, prior to donning a mask and greeting every reporter separately, without shaking arms.

Francis’s whirlwind tour will choose him by plane, helicopter and quite possibly armoured car or truck to four cities, together with regions that most overseas dignitaries are not able to reach, let by yourself in this kind of a shorter place of time.

He will say Mass at a Baghdad church, meet Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric in the southern city of Najaf and travel north to Mosul, where the military experienced to empty the streets for protection good reasons very last yr for a visit by Iraq’s prime minister.

Mosul is a previous Islamic Condition stronghold, and churches and other properties there nonetheless bear the scars of conflict.


Because the defeat of the Islamic Point out militants in 2017, Iraq has observed a bigger degree of protection, though violence persists, typically in the form of rocket assaults by Iran-aligned militias on U.S. targets, and U.S. military motion in response.

On Wednesday 10 rockets landed on an airbase that hosts U.S., coalition and Iraqi forces. Several hours later, Francis reaffirmed he would vacation to Iraq.

Islamic Point out also continues to be a danger. In January, a suicide attack claimed by the Sunni militant team killed 32 people in Baghdad’s deadliest this kind of attack for years.

Francis will satisfy clergy at a Baghdad church where by Islamist gunmen killed extra than 50 worshippers in 2010. Violence versus minority groups in Iraq, particularly when a 3rd of the state was getting run by Islamic State, has lowered its historical Christian community to a fifth of its once 1.5 million persons.

The pontiff will also visit Ur, birthplace of the prophet Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, and meet up with Iraq’s revered leading Shi’ite Muslim cleric, 90-yr-outdated Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

The assembly with Sistani, who wields great affect over Iraq’s Shi’ite the greater part and in the country’s politics, will be the first by a pope.

Some Shi’ite militant groups have opposed the pope’s go to, framing it as Western interference in Iraq’s affairs, but several Iraqis hope that it can support foster a refreshing see of Iraq.

“It might not improve a lot on the ground, but at the very least if the pope visits, people will see our region in a distinct light-weight, not just bombs and war,” explained Ali Hassan, a 30-yr-old Baghdad resident picking up kin at the airport.

Reporting by Philip Pullella on the papal aircraft, John Davison in Baghdad Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Gareth Jones