Pope Francis Meets Iraqi President, Calls for Embracing Diversity


Pope Francis boards a plane as he departs to Iraq on March 5, 2021 at Rome's Fiumicino airport.

Francis, a major supporter of inter-religious dialogue, will afterwards hold an interfaith service at the desert site of the ancient city of Ur, where Abraham is thought to have been born. In January, a suicide attack claimed by the Sunni militant group killed 32 people in Baghdad's deadliest such attack for years.

Iraqi security forces pass by Iraq and the Vatican flags and posters announcing visit of the Pope Francis in a street in Qaraqosh, Iraq, Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. "May no one be considered a second-class citizen", the pope said in a speech at Baghdad's presidential palace on Friday.

The Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, said this week the important thing is for Iraqis to know that the pope came to Iraq as an "act of love."

Iraq's Christians have fallen in number from 1.5 million in 2003 to fewer than 400,000.

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.

Pope Francis travelled with an entourage on an Alitalia flight and wore a mask for the duration of the journey.

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.

Francis noted Iraqi Christians had suffered during years of war, economic hardships and persecution.

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Crowds waving Iraqi and Vatican flags gathered along Baghdad's airport road - the scene of regular attacks in the years after the 2003 US -led invasion - to greet the pontiff on the first-ever papal visit to the country.

The defeat of Islamic State in 2017 brought an end to the group's three-year occupation of the Christian heartland on the Nineveh Plain, which the pope will visit on Sunday, but Iran-backed militias and Kurdish security forces seeking to control the area have impeded many Christians from resettling there.

Christians once constituted a sizeable minority in Iraq but their numbers began dwindling after the 2003 USA -led invasion. The US 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.

Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in Baghdad on Friday afternoon. A red carpet was rolled out on the tarmac in Baghdad's worldwide airport.

Francis said. "Every effort made to build bridges between ecclesial, parish and diocesan communities and institutions will serve as a prophetic gesture on the part of the Church in Iraq and a fruitful response to Jesus' prayer that all may be one".

President Barham Salih thanked the pope for making the first-ever papal visit to Iraq "despite the many recommendations to delay" because of the pandemic and other challenges in "our wounded country". He will say Mass at a Baghdad church, travel north to Mosul, a former stronghold of Islamic State, and churches and other buildings there still bear the scars of conflict. The 84-year-old pope, the Vatican delegation and travelling media have been vaccinated; most Iraqis have not. But the AP notes that "health measures appeared lax inside the airport" when he arrived on Friday and that hundreds gathered nearby in hopes of seeing him.

Iraq was estimated to have almost 1.5 million Christians prior to the 2003 US -led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

"The different Churches present in Iraq, each with its age-old historical, liturgical and spiritual patrimony, are like so many individual coloured threads that, woven together, make up a single attractive carpet, one that displays not only our fraternity but points also to its source", the pope said.