Pope lands in Iraq on historic first visit

Iraqi President Barham Salih welcomes Pope Francis on Friday during an official welcome ceremony at the presidential Palace in Baghdad Iraq. Pope Francis began his three-day pilgrimage to Iraq on Friday which is the first papal visit to the Middle E

Iraqi President Barham Salih welcomes Pope Francis on Friday during an official welcome ceremony at the presidential Palace in Baghdad Iraq. Pope Francis began his three-day pilgrimage to Iraq on Friday which is the first papal visit to the Middle E

The Pope hopes his visit will help Iraq overcome such violence by promoting religious coexistence.

"Your insistence on visiting Iraq despite the difficulties of the pandemic, and the hard times witnessed by our country, doubles the value of the visit to Iraqis", President Barham Salih said Friday while meeting the pope. He said Iraqis of all faiths deserve to have the same rights and protections as the Shiite Muslim majority. Only then will it be possible "to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave future generations a better, more just and more humane world", he said. Only around 300,000 Christians remain in the country today, down from almost 1.5 million in the early 2000s.

Pope Francis arrived in Baghdad on Friday on a three-day apostolic visit to Iraq with activities planned in this capital, the Plain of Ur and the cities of Najaf, Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh.

Almost seven years later, Francis has fulfilled his promise, visiting one of the first early Christian communities in the region.

"A Middle East without Christians is like trying to make bread with flour, but no yeast or salt", he said.

Francis, a major supporter of inter-religious dialogue, will afterwards head to the desert site of Ur, where Abraham is thought to have been born.

Christians once made up a sizeable minority in Iraq, with an estimated 1.4 million.

Horsemen carrying both Iraqi and Vatican flags escorted his motorcade inside the Green Zone, which houses key government buildings and foreign embassies.

Authorities have imposed a full lockdown through the papal trip, which means Francis will not be greeted by massive crowds of believers like on other foreign trips. He and his entourage have all been vaccinated.

It was believed to be the first time a bullet-proof auto was used to transport Pope Francis, who often travels in an open-sided "popemobile" and is known for meeting crowds. As Francis left the airport, he passed people dancing and singing, few of whom were wearing masks.

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Pope Francis rolled down the window of his auto to wave at some of the hundreds of people who gathered to greet him as his motorcade rolled through Iraq's capital. Iraqi authorities hope to highlight the improved security situation after declaring victory against the Islamic State group in 2017.

For Iraqi Christians, who trace their history nearly back to the time of Jesus, the visit is long-awaited.

Still, the Vatican says health measures are being enforced - and the significance of the trip far outweighs the risks.

Francis was welcomed joyfully with song and a yellow and white flower necklace as he entered Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral, hours after he arrived in Iraq for the first-ever papal visit.

The U.S. invasion of 2003, after years of global sanctions and a devastating war with Iran instigated by former leader Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, plunged Iraq into sectarian conflict and chronic mismanagement that has plagued it since.

An Alitalia plane carrying him, his entourage, a security detail and about 75 journalists, touched down at Baghdad International Airport slightly ahead of schedule just before 2:00pm local time on Friday.

Hundreds of people gathered in small clusters to see him being driven into Baghdad in bulletproof BMW, a departure for a pope who normally insists on using small, normal cars.

Iraq has resources, including the fifth largest oil reserves in the world, but the country is not able to even provide consistent electricity or water to its citizens, much less a sufficient number of jobs, she said.

In 2010, Islamist militants stormed the church and killed 44 worshippers, two priests and several security force personnel in one of the bloodiest attacks on Iraq's Christians. Under Iraqi law, conversion from Islam to other religions is prohibited, Muslim women may not marry non-Muslims, and children of Christian mothers and Muslim fathers must be registered as Muslims.

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