Pope Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday for the first-ever papal visit to the Middle Eastern country, a place where the Christian community declined amid the war years.
The visit also comes amid an increase in coronavirus infections and a tense security situation in the country.
He was greeted at Baghdad airport by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi.
In an airport room, dozens of people waved flags and music was played to greet the Pope before he and al-Kadhemi sat down to speak.
Thousands of security forces have been deployed and additional checkpoints have been set up in Baghdad.
The Pope’s visit was greeted with great enthusiasm and people stood on both sides of the road leading to the airport waiting to greet him.
However, the capital was largely empty due to a lockdown that was expected to last until late Sunday, despite the streets being filled with photos of the Pope and Vatican flags fluttering in many places.
“Thank you for accompanying me, I am very happy to be able to resume the trips,” Francis told reporters on the flight.
Later Friday, he is due to meet with Iraqi President Barham Salih as well as representatives of the Church and civil society.
The 84-year-old will then travel across the country during his four-day visit.
He will travel south to meet an influential Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in the town of Najaf on Saturday, followed by an interfaith meeting in Ur, which is mentioned in the Bible as the house of Abraham.
On Sunday, the pope will travel to the autonomous region of northern Kurdistan before traveling to Mosul and Qaraqosh, where he will pray for the victims of the conflict with the extremist group Islamic State, which has seized large areas of northern l ‘Iraq in 2014, killing and displacing. thousands.
There were once over a million Christians in Iraq, but today they are estimated to number between 250,000 and 400,000 after years of war, religious persecution and a sharp economic decline.
The visit also comes amid security tensions in Iraq, as militias regularly launch rocket attacks on military bases hosting international troops, with a US-led coalition fighting Islamic State in the region. .
The latest attack came on Wednesday when rockets targeted an air base in western Iraq.
In Cairo, the head of the prominent Sunni Muslim institution Al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, called the visit “historic and courageous”.
It “sends a message of peace, solidarity and support to all the Iraqi people,” said al-Tayyeb, who met the Pope in early 2019 in the United Arab Emirates. (dpa / NAN)
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