Pope Francis arrives in Baghdad in first-ever papal visit to Iraq

March 5 (UPI) — Pope Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday in the first-ever papal visit to the Middle Eastern nation, amid heightened security concerns for the pontiff in what’s considered one of the most dangerous countries on Earth.

Francis departed Vatican City early Friday morning and arrived in Baghdad a few hours later.

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The pope says he felt compelled to make the risky trip to Iraq because its people “have suffered so much.”

“My dear Christian brothers and sisters from Iraq, who have testified to your faith in Jesus amid harsh sufferings: I cannot wait to see you,” Pope Francis tweeted before making the trip. “I am honored to encounter a Church of martyrs: thank you for your witness!”

A group of political and religious officials met the pope on his arrival in Baghdad, including the Apostolic Nuncio to Iraq, Archbishop Mitja Leskovar, and representatives of the Chaldean Archeparchy of Baghdad, the Latin Archdiocese of Baghdad, the Syriac Archeparchy of Baghdad and Armenian Archeparchy of Baghdad.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and President Barham Salih also were present to meet the pope on his arrival.

Friday’s trip was part of a three-day pilgrimage to Iraq to visit the nation’s Catholic faithful and offer support amid the COVID-19 crisis. It’s estimated that about 500,000 Christians live in Iraq, a number that has drastically declined since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The pope’s schedule Friday included a private meeting with al-Kadhimin and Salih and public meetings with authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps at the Presidential Palace before traveling to the Syro-Catholic Cathedral of “Our Lady of Salvation.”

Francis is expected to meet with Shia Muslim leader Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani in Najaf on Saturday, followed by an inter-religious meeting in Nassiryiaat.

The pope’s trip will be punctuated by a visit to Massat Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil on Sunday evening before he returns to the Vatican Monday.

No pope has ever made an official visit to Iraq. Pope John Paul II had planned to visit the country in 2000, but rising tensions and violence, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the invasion of Iraq that followed ultimately scuttled those plans.

“The people of Iraq are waiting for us,” the pope said Wednesday, according to CNN. “They were waiting for [former] Pope John Paul II, who was not allowed to go.

“The people cannot be let down for a second time. Let us pray that this trip can be carried out well.”

Concerns for the pope’s safety increased this week after a number of rockets were fired at the Ain al-Asad military air base in Iraq that hosts U.S. troops. A civilian contractor died of a “cardiac episode” during the event, but there were no injuries or deaths from the rocket fire itself.

Iraqi officials have placed Baghdad on lockdown for the entirety of the pope’s visit, allowing only authorized vehicles into the city. Officials have also closed schools and government offices for the duration of the trip.

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