SULAIMANI – Pope Francis on Friday (March 5) arrived in the Iraqi capital Baghdad and was received by Iraqi Prime Ministers Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
Iraqis welcomed Francis in traditional Iraqi clothes and music in the company of Prime Minister al-Kadhimi.
Later, Iraqi President Barham Salih received the head of the Catholic Church and sovereign of the Vatican City State at al-Salam Palace.
Francis is supposed to meet with the Iraqi politicians and senior religious figures including the biggest Shia cleric in the country Grand Ayatollah Sistan in his three-day tour to the war-torn Iraq.
Iraqi has deployed a large number of additional security forces to protect Francis during his stay in the country.
The visit came at delicate moment for Iraq when it is going through an accumulation of political and economic crises.
On Wednesday, ten rockets landed on an air base
hosting US coalition and Iraqi forces, but the pontiff reaffirmed his determination to come to Iraq hours later.
84-year-old Pope Francis will visit four cities, including the former bastion of the self-styled Islamic State (ISIS) caliphate Mosul, where churches and buildings are still in ruin.
He is expected to pay a visit to Ur, located in Dhi Qar governorate, which a city revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, and meet Iraq’s top Shia Muslim cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Former Pope John Paul had to cancel a planned trip in 2000 after a breakdown in talks with the government of then president Saddam Hussein.
The pontiff will also arrive in the Kurdistan Region's capital city of Erbil on Sunday and will hold a mass at the Franso Hariri Stadium.
The head of Egypt’s al-Azhar institution in Cairo Ahmad al-Taib welcomed the Pope's visit
to Iraq in a Facebook post.
"My brother @Pontifex’s historic and courageous visit to Iraq sends a message of peace, solidarity, and support to all Iraqi people," al-Taib, the Sheikh said. "I pray to Almighty Allah to grant him success and that his trip achieves the desired outcome to continue on the path of human fraternity," he added.
Accompanying the pontiff in his trip, Regina Lynch, Director of Projects, Aid to the Church in Need Internationals told Vatican News
that “The Pope's visit to Iraq will raise awareness on the presence and important role played by local Christians.”
Earlier on Friday, US embassy in Baghdad warned its citizens
of attacks by Iran-backed militia groups with little or no warning, impacting airports, tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, and local government facilities.
“Iraqi and Western facilities and places frequented by U.S. citizens and other Westerners may also be targeted,” the embassy said in a statement.
"I long to meet you, to see your faces, to visit your land, ancient and extraordinary cradle of civilization, “ the pope said in a video message on Thursday. "I come as a pilgrim, a penitent pilgrim to implore forgiveness and reconciliation from the Lord after years of war and terrorism."
"I come as a pilgrim of peace in search of fraternity, animated by the desire to pray together and to walk together, also with the brothers and sisters of other religions," he added.
The Christian community consisted of six percent of the Iraqi population in 2003, but decades of war and conflicts shrunk that number to just 400,000 as many of the Christians fled to outside Iraq and many moved to the safer areas in the Kurdistan Region.
*This story was updated at 07:29 pm EBL