Pope Francis landed in Baghdad on Friday at 11am Greenwich Mean Time and 2pm local time, kicking off the first visit by a sovereign pontiff to Iraq and his first trip abroad since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, launching a visit that will combine support for Christians and dialogue with Islam and is scheduled to end on 8 March.
"I am happy to resume travel" after 15 months without travel, the Argentine Pope said on the plane. "And this emblematic trip is a duty to a land that has been martyred for so many years," he added on the first of his three-day visit to Iraq.
The 84-year-old pontiff, who has said he is arriving as a "pilgrim of peace", will once again reach out to Islam in this country, one of the cradles of Christianity bled by wars and still scarred by the irruption of the jihadist group Daesh; meeting with the highest religious authority of part of the Shiite world, Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf, south of Baghdad.
The Pope said today that for him "it was a duty" to go to Iraq, a "martyred land", despite the controversy generated by his visit because of the risks arising from the pandemic and the latest missile attacks on international coalition bases.
Francis made this statement on the flight to Iraq for a three-day trip, one of the most difficult and risky of his pontificate, with the determined intention of being close to the Christian community in the country, brutally persecuted by Daesh terrorists.
The Pope, wearing a mask, greeted the 75 journalists accompanying him on the visit to Iraq and said he was "happy to resume international travel" after more than a year without being able to travel abroad due to the limitations imposed by COVID-19.
As usual, although wearing a mask and without shaking hands, the Pope greeted one by one the representatives of the media accompanying him on this trip. The Pope, who has been vaccinated, is arriving in a country where coronavirus infections are at an all-time high, with more than 5,000 cases reported every day.
The Argentine pontiff received as a gift a replica of the price list established by Daesh as a price for the young Christian and Yazidi girls who were kidnapped by the jihadists and put up for sale as sex slaves.
This brutal persecution of Christians and minorities has led the Pope to make a trip that had been postponed on other occasions due to the instability of the country and which John Paul II had wanted to make so much.
He also received as a gift a copy of the book 'I will be the last', by the Yazidi Nobel Prize winner Nadia Murad, who recounts her captivity when she was used as a sex slave by Daesh, which had previously massacred her family. The young woman has become their voice and was awarded for her efforts to eradicate sexual violence as a weapon in wars and armed conflicts.
On his arrival at Baghdad airport, the Pope was met at the foot of the stairs by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazemi, and two children in traditional dress will offer him flowers.
The Vatican delegation accompanying the Pope includes the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, as well as the Prefect of the Congregation for Oriental Churches, Argentinean Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, and Spanish Cardinal Miguel Angel Ayuso, head of the Pontifical Council for Religious Dialogue, among others.
After a discreet welcoming ceremony, the Pope and the head of government will meet privately in one of the halls of the capital's airport.
His first official act will be a meeting with the country's president, the Kurdish Barham Saleh, and a speech at the presidential palace to the authorities and members of the diplomatic corps.
In just three days, the pontiff will go to the south, to Ur of the Chaldees, and to the north, to the Nineveh plain and the cities of Mosul and Qaraqosh, destroyed by Daesh and home to the Christian population that has been reduced by half, as well as to Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, which sheltered those fleeing the jihadists.
Despite the peak of the pandemic and the multiple security threats, the Baghdad authorities welcome this first visit by a Pope. "A historic trip because of its strong symbolic charge," said an Iraqi diplomat, who praised the pontiff's "courage" for defying the dangers by venturing for three days in the footsteps of Abraham.
During the 1,450 kilometres of his journey, the pope will use a closed vehicle for security reasons and to avoid crowds of people wanting to see him, a measure taken above all because of the pandemic. He will also fly over areas where Daesh cells are still hiding. The Nineveh plain was occupied by Daesh jihadists between 2014 and 2017. The Christian community in this region of northern Iraq has declined considerably in numbers, as tensions between the armed groups remain high and public infrastructure is still badly destroyed. No foreign official has visited Mosul for more than five years.
Until 2003, Shia-majority Iraq had a population of 1.5 million Christians. Today there are only between 300,000 and 400,000, according to the NGO Hammurabi, which fights for the rights of Iraq's Christian minority. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Pope Francis had clearly expressed his desire to visit this country, whose population he regularly mentions as "martyred" by war.