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The head of the Catholic Church said God would protect his Iraqi followers from coronavirus. He hinted at future trips to Budapest, Slovakia and Lebanon.
Pope Francis met Iraq's top political and religious leaders, including President Barham Salih, during his 'pilgrimage of peace'
Pope Francis returned to the Vatican city after to the his four-day trip to Iraq on Monday.
"I have to confess to you that during this trip I felt a lot more tired than during other ones," the 84-year-old told reporters on the plane to Rome after completing the first-ever papal visit to the Middle Eastern country.
His trip was aimed at bringing hope to the country's marginalized Christian minority, while boosting relations with the Shiite Muslim world.
Regarding the crowds of people who gathered for his visit, the pontiff said he had weighed the risks of traveling during the coronavirus pandemic, but said he decided to go ahead with it after much prayer. He professed his belief that God would protect those who might be exposed.
In Iraq, he was welcomed by crowds of people in packed churches, mostly without masks. A crowd of around 10,000 people also welcomed him in the Iraqi Kurdish capital, Irbil.
Francis said the idea of a trip "cooks over time in my conscience."
"I prayed a lot about this. And in the end I took the decision freely,'' Francis said. "It came from inside. I said He who makes me decide this way will look after the people.'''
The pontiff arrived in Iraq just as the country was hit by a new surge in infections. Francis, the Vatican delegation and traveling media were vaccinated against the virus, although most Iraqis haven't been.
During his trip, Francis called on Christians to remain in Iraq. He also met with the country's top Shiite cleric to enlist his help in preserving the country's shrinking Christian population. On Monday, the pope said his meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Ali a-Sistani had been "good for his soul." He spoke warmly of his conversation with the 90-year-old al-Sistani, who is known for keeping out of the public eye.
There were once more than 1 million Christians in Iraq, a country of 38 million, but now their population is estimated to be between 250,000 and 400,000 after years of war, religious persecution and economic decline.
In honor of the historic trip, hailed by both Iraqi and international leaders, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadhemi announced that March 6 — the day Francis visited al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf — would be marked as a national day of coexistence.
Following his trip to Iraq, the religious leader said he wanted to go to Lebanon, a country engulfed in an economic, health and political crisis, as soon as possible. "Lebanon is suffering," he said.
Looking close to his Vatican home, Francis also said he would also go to Budapest in September, and hinted a possible trip to Slovakia.
lc/dj (dpa, Reuters, AFP, AP)