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

Pope John Paul II had planned to visit Iraq in 2000, but a rise in violence and political tensions thwarted that attempt.

Pope Francis (L) receives a bouquet of flowers from a child upon his arrival at at Baghdad Airport in Iraq on Friday. Photo by Office of the Iraqi President/UPI
Pope Francis (L) receives a bouquet of flowers from a child upon his arrival at at Baghdad Airport in Iraq on Friday. Photo by Office of the Iraqi President/UPI | License Photo

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 said before the trip that he felt compelled to make the risky visit to Iraq because its people "have suffered so much."

"Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as members of the same human family will we be able to begin a process of rebuilding and leave future generations a better, more just and humane world," Pope Francis said in his welcoming address at the presidential palace in Baghdad.

"May the clash of arms be silenced," he added. "May their spread be curbed here and everywhere.

"May the voice of builders and peacemakers find a hearing -- the voice of the humble, the poor and the ordinary men and women who want to live, work and pray in peace."

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.

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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."

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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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