Pope Francis embarks on dangerous, historic Iraq tour

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Pope Francis embarked on Friday on the to start with at any time papal go to to Iraq, his riskiest excursion due to the fact his election in 2013, indicating he felt obligation-bound to make the “emblematic” check out due to the fact the country experienced experienced so considerably for so extensive.

His first quit following his plane touched down at Baghdad International Airport was to meet Iraqi President Barham Salih at the presidential palace, where a crimson carpet, navy band and flock of doves greeted the pontiff.

Iraq has deployed thousands of extra stability personnel to secure the 84-12 months-aged pope in the course of the visit, which will come right after a spate of rocket and suicide bomb attacks raised fears for his safety.

A motorcade of dozens of automobiles accompanied Francis out of the airport compound, which has just lately arrive underneath rocket fire from militia teams.

“I am happy to be building excursions once again,” he said in transient comments to reporters aboard his aircraft. The coronavirus pandemic has prevented Francis from travelling and the Iraq journey is his very first exterior Italy considering the fact that November 2019.

“This is an emblematic trip and it is a responsibility in the direction of a land that has been martyred for so quite a few decades,” Francis reported, before donning a mask and greeting every reporter individually, without shaking hands.

Francis, who generally insists on using very simple and modest vehicles on his journeys, was pushed to the palace in a bullet-evidence BMW sedan, protection officers said.

As he and the president walked collectively, Francis limped noticeably, indicating that his sciatica may have flared up yet again. The problem compelled him to terminate many activities before this year.

Francis’s whirlwind tour will choose him by plane, helicopter and perhaps armoured automobile to 4 metropolitan areas, together with regions that most foreign dignitaries are not able to access, let on your own in these kinds of a shorter place of time.

He will say Mass at a Baghdad church, meet up with Iraq’s top rated Shi’ite Muslim cleric in the southern city of Najaf and journey north to Mosul, exactly where the army experienced to empty the streets for security explanations very last 12 months for a visit by Iraq’s key minister.

Mosul is a former stronghold of Islamic Point out, and church buildings and other buildings there nonetheless bear the scars of conflict.


Since the defeat of the Islamic State militants in 2017, Iraq has viewed a higher degree of safety, though violence persists, frequently in the variety of rocket attacks by Iran-aligned militias on U.S. targets, and U.S. navy motion in reaction.

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

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

Francis will meet up with clergy at a Baghdad church exactly where Islamist gunmen killed much more than 50 worshippers in 2010. Violence in opposition to Iraq’s minority spiritual teams, specially when a 3rd of the nation was staying operate by Islamic Condition, has lowered its historical Christian local community to a fifth of its after 1.5 million individuals.

The pontiff will also check out Ur, birthplace of the prophet Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, and fulfill Iraq’s revered best Shi’ite Muslim cleric, 90-yr-previous Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

The assembly with Sistani, who wields great influence around Iraq’s Shi’ite the vast majority and in the country’s politics, will be the initial by a pope.

Some Shi’ite militant groups have opposed the pope’s check out, framing it as Western interference in Iraq’s affairs, but numerous Iraqis hope that it can help foster a fresh watch of Iraq.

“It could not improve a lot on the floor, but at least if the pope visits, persons will see our nation in a various light-weight, not just bombs and war,” explained Ali Hassan, a 30-calendar year-aged Baghdad resident buying up kin at the airport.

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