Pope Francis has landed in Baghdad for his most risky foreign trip since his election in 2012, saying he feels duty-bound to make the “emblematic” visit because Iraq has suffered so much for so long.
A plane carrying him, his entourage, a security detail, and about 75 journalists has touched down at Baghdad International Airport slightly ahead of schedule, just before 2pm local time on Friday.
Iraq is deploying thousands of additional security personnel to protect the 84-year-old Pope during the visit, which comes after a spate of rocket and suicide bomb attacks raised fears for his safety.
“I am happy to be making trips again,” he said in brief comments to reporters aboard his plane, alluding to the coronavirus pandemic which has prevented him from travelling.
The Iraq trip is his first outside Italy since November 2019.
“This is an emblematic trip and it is a duty towards a land that has been martyred for so many years,” Francis said, before donning a mask and greeting each reporter individually, without shaking hands.
Francis’s whirlwind tour will take him by plane, helicopter and possibly armoured car to four cities, including areas that most foreign dignitaries are unable to reach, let alone in such a short space of time.
Tomorrow I will go to #Iraq for a three-day pilgrimage. I have long wanted to meet those people who have suffered so much. I ask you to accompany this apostolic journey with your prayers, so it may unfold in the best possible way and bear hoped-for fruits.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) March 4, 2021
He will say Mass at a Baghdad church, meet Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric in the southern city of Najaf and travel north to Mosul, where the army had to empty the streets for security reasons last year for a visit by Iraq’s prime minister.
Mosul is a former Islamic State stronghold, and churches and other buildings there still bear the scars of conflict.
Since the defeat of the Islamic State militants in 2017, Iraq has seen a greater degree of security, though violence persists, often in the form of rocket attacks by Iran-aligned militias on US targets, and US military action in response.
On Wednesday, 10 rockets landed on an airbase that hosts US, coalition and Iraqi forces. Hours later, Francis reaffirmed he would travel to Iraq.
Islamic State also remains a threat. In January, a suicide attack claimed by the Sunni militant group killed 32 people in Baghdad’s deadliest such attack for years.
Francis will meet clergy at a Baghdad church where Islamist gunmen killed more than 50 worshippers in 2010.
Violence against Iraq’s minority religious groups, especially when a third of the country was being run by Islamic State, has reduced its ancient Christian community to a fifth of its once 1.5 million people.