Pope Francis has arrived in Iraq to urge the country’s dwindling number of Christians to stay put and help rebuild the country after years of war and persecution.
The Pope, who wore a face mask during the flight, kept it on as he descended the stairs to the tarmac and was greeted by two masked children in traditional dress.
But health measures appeared lax inside the airport despite the country’s worsening coronavirus outbreak.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said Iraqis were eager to welcome Francis’ “message of peace and tolerance” and described the visit as a historic meeting between the “minaret and the bells”.
Among the highlights of the three-day visit is Francis’ private meeting on Saturday with the country’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered figure in Iraq and beyond.
Francis’ plane touched down at Baghdad’s airport just before 2pm local time.
A red carpet was rolled out on the tarmac in Baghdad’s international airport with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on hand to greet him.
Francis was visibly limping in a sign his sciatica, which has flared and forced him to cancel events recently, was possibly bothering him.
A largely unmasked choir sang songs as both the Pope and prime minister made their way to a welcome area in the airport.
People wandered around without masks and the Pope and the prime minister took theirs off as they sat down for their first meeting – seated less than two metres apart – and later stood next to each other shaking hands and chatting.
The pontiff later rolled down the window and waved to some of the hundreds of people who gathered along the airport road to watch his motorcade pass.
The airport road was the scene of regular attacks in the chaotic years after the 2003 US-led invasion.
Iraqis were keen to welcome him and the global attention his visit will bring, with billboards depicting Francis with the slogan “We are all Brothers”.
The government is eager to show off the relative security it has achieved after years of wars and militant attacks that nevertheless continue even today.
Francis and the Vatican delegation are relying on Iraqi security forces to protect them, including with the expected first use of an armoured car for the popemobile-loving pontiff.
Francis is breaking his year-long COVID-19 lockdown to refocus the world’s attention on a largely neglected people whose northern Christian communities, which date from the time of Christ, were largely emptied during the violent Islamic State reign from 2014-2017.
For the Pope, who has often travelled to places where Christians are a persecuted minority, Iraq’s beleaguered Christians are the epitome of the “martyred church” that he has admired ever since he was a young Jesuit seeking to be a missionary in Asia.