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Pope Francis returns to Vatican after historic 3-day visit to Iraq

Pope Francis (L) speaks with Iraq's President Barham Salih (R) before departing for Rome at Baghdad International Airport on Monday. Photo courtesy of Iraqi president's press office | License Photo

March 8 (UPI) -- Pope Francis returned to the Vatican on Monday after completing his historic visit to Iraq, where he traveled with the intention of promoting hope, unity and peace in the war-scarred Middle Eastern nation.

The pontiff was sent off in Baghdad by Iraqi President Barham Salih after a brief private meeting in an airport lounge. Salih accompanied Francis on a red carpet to the steps of the plane, where Francis met with Iraqi and Vatican delegations before boarding.

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Pope Francis' arrival in Iraq on Friday marked the first-ever visit by any pontiff to the country and came after a gap in international travel for the pope, due to COVID-19. Before Iraq, his last international trip was November 2019, to Thailand and Japan.

During a news conference on the plane ride home, Francis told The New York Times he'd been reluctant to visit Iraq amid the pandemic.

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"I thought about it a lot, I prayed a lot over this," he said.

After his arrival in Rome, Francis visited the Basilica of St. Mary Major and placed a bouquet of flowers on the altar of the Virgin Mary's image. He'd asked her for protection before he went to Iraq.

Francis then returned to his Vatican residence at the Casa Santa Marta for rest, papal officials said.

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The pope first visited Baghdad before stops in Najaf, Ur, Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh, including a visit to the birthplace of Abraham on Saturday and areas ravaged by the Islamic State terror group on Sunday.

Throughout the journey, he repeated calls for unity, hope and peace.

"Pope Francis' visit was a historic and welcome first for the country," U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement Monday. "It sent an important message, as Pope Francis said himself, that 'fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than death, that peace more powerful than war.'"

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"To see Pope Francis visit ancient religious sites, including the biblical birthplace of Abraham, spend time with Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani in Najaf, and offer prayers in Mosul -- a city that only a few years ago endured the depravity and intolerance of a group like ISIS -- is a symbol of hope for the entire world."

Francis made the trip amid security concerns, as Iraq is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

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