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Pope Francis arrives in Iraq amid security fears

March 5, 2021

Pope Francis has begun his first ever papal visit to the Middle Eastern country. He said he wanted to make the "emblematic trip" because Iraq had suffered so much for so long

Pope Francis stands outside an Alitalia airplane as he boards for his visit to Iraq, at Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport in Rome, Italy, March 5, 2021.
Pope Francis' trip is the first ever papal visit to IraqImage: Remo Casilli/REUTERS

Pope Francis arrived in Baghdad on Friday for a historic visit amid concerns over security and the spread of the coronavirus. 

"This is an emblematic trip and it is a duty towards a land that has been martyred for so many years," Francis told reporters.

"I am happy to be making trips again."

The pontiff's trip to Iraq is his first outside of Italy since November 2019. 

Ahead of the visit, the 84-year-old pope was given a COVID-19 vaccine and Iraq heightened its security measures.

But a second wave of coronavirus infections has hit the country, resulting in some 5,000 new cases per day. 

"I'll try to follow directions and not shake hands with everyone, but I don't want to stay too far," Francis said before his arrival.

What did Francis do on his first day?

Though Francis promised to follow strict coronavirus guidelines, soon after he stepped off the plane, the Pope extended his hand in greeting to the Iraqi dignitaries waiting for him on the tarmac at Baghdad International Airport.

He also stripped off his white mask to smile at children assembled to welcome him.

Following his lead, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi removed his mask too, as did the head of the premier's protocol office.

Shortly afterwards, Pope Francis was gifted an art miniature depicting a stage on the path to Christ's crucifixion.

The bronze plaque was designed by the Muslim artist, Mohammad Ghani Hikmat, one of Iraq's most celebrated sculptors who passed away in 2011.

Iraqi President Barham Salih shakes Pope Francis' hand inside Iraq's Presidential Palace
Pope Francis and Iraqi President Barham Salih shake hands at Baghdad's Presidential PalaceImage: Andrew Medichini/AP Photo/picture alliance

Work on the replica crafted in the Lebanese capital Beirut was personally overseen by his son Yasser, who kept its existence a secret until it was presented to Francis.

"It's very symbolic of Iraq, because my father was an Arab Muslim sculptor who recounted through his works the passion of Christ," Hikmat told AFP.

"It represents all of Iraq in that there's no difference between any of the sects," he said.

The welcoming gift was presented by President Barham Saleh, who invited Pope Francis to visit Iraq in 2019 — hoping it could help the country "heal" after years of strife.

Pope Francis with bishops inside the 'Our Lady of Salvation' Cathedral in Iraq
Pope Francis met with with bishops, priests, seminarians and catechists at the Syro-Catholic Cathedral of 'Our Lady of Salvation' in BaghdadImage: Vatican Media/REUTERS

What pandemic precautions are in place?

Authorities imposed a full lockdown for the entirety of the Pope's visit, leaving the streets empty of the thick crowds who would normally greet Francis.

One person notably absent: the Vatican's ambassador to Iraq, who tested positive for COVID-19 after spending weeks making papal preparations across the country.

Francis himself and the entirety of the press corps travelling with him were vaccinated with the BioNTech-Pfizer jab ahead of the trip.

Iraqi municipal workers sweep a street in front of a giant board covered with a painting of Pope Francis in Baghdad, Iraq
A strict lockdown to protect against the spread of the coronavirus is currently in place for Pope Francis' visitImage: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

The pope's whirlwind tour 

On his 4-day trip, the pope is set to visit four cities, including the former Islamic State stronghold Mosul. 

He is also due to visit the southern city of Najaf to meet Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric, a first for a pope. 

Francis will also deliver Mass at a Baghdad church where Islamist militants killed at least 50 worshipers in 2010. 

Iraq's ancient Christian community has been reduced to a fifth due to terrorist attacks. 

Security remains a concern in Iraq

Iraq has enjoyed some level of security since the defeat of the Islamic State militants in 2017. Yet, violence remains an issue, with frequent rocket attacks by Iran-aligned militias on US bases, and US military action in response. 

On Wednesday, an airbase hosting US, coalition and Iraqi forces was hit by 10 rockets. Despite the attack, Francis confirmed his visit hours later. 

In January, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide attack that killed 32 people. 

Iraq has deployed thousands of additional security personnel to protect the pope on his visit.

Pope Francis in Iraq: Mission impossible?

mb, fb/rs (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)