ROME: Pope Francis left Rome on Friday for a historic trip to Iraq, his first abroad since the coronavirus pandemic began, according to an AFP reporter aboard his plane.
The 84-year-old, who said he was making the first-ever papal visit to Iraq as a “pilgrim of peace,” will also reach out to Shiite Muslims when he meets Iraq’s top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
Shortly before leaving for the airport Pope Francis met 12 Iraqi refugees from the Community of Sant'Egidio and Auxilium Cooperative, two Catholic NGOs for 15 minutes.
The four-day journey is the pope’s first abroad since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which left the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics saying he felt “caged” inside the Vatican.
Security will be tight in Iraq, which has endured years of war and insurgency, is still hunting for Daesh sleeper cells, and days ago saw a barrage of rockets plow into a military base.
Francis will preside over a half-dozen services in ravaged churches, refurbished stadiums and remote desert locations, where attendance will be limited to allow for social distancing.
My dear Christian brothers and sisters from #Iraq, who have testified to your faith in Jesus amid harsh sufferings: I cannot wait to see you. I am honoured to encounter a Church of martyrs: thank you for your witness! https://t.co/bgm76p31tM
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) March 4, 2021
Inside the country, he will travel more than 1,400 kilometers by plane and helicopter, flying over areas where security forces are still battling Daesh remnants.
For shorter trips, Francis will take an armored car on freshly paved roads that will be lined with flowers and posters welcoming the leader known here as “Baba Al-Vatican.”
The pope’s visit has deeply touched Iraq’s Christians, whose numbers have collapsed over years of persecution and sectarian violence, from 1.5 million in 2003 to fewer than 400,000 today.
The first day of the pope’s ambitious itinerary will see him meet government officials and clerics in the capital Baghdad, including at the Our Lady of Salvation church, where a militant attack left dozens dead in 2010.
He will also visit the northern province of Nineveh, where in 2014 Daesh militants forced minorities to either flee, convert to Islam or be put to death.
“People had only a few minutes to decide if they wanted to leave or be decapitated,” recalled Karam Qacha, a Chaldean Catholic priest in Nineveh.
“We left everything — except our faith.”
Some 100,000 Christians — around half of those who lived in the province — fled, of whom just 36,000 have returned, according to Catholic charity “Aid to the Church in Need.”
(Additional reporting by Francesco Bongarr)