March 10 (UPI) -- Following his historic visit to Iraq, which saw him become the first pontiff ever to visit the battle-scarred Middle Eastern nation, Pope Francis reflected on the journey Wednesday and said much can be done to bring peace to Iraqis.
In his weekly audience at the Vatican, Francis said Iraqis have the right to peace and denounced groups who sell and send weapons to terrorists across Iraq.
The pope visited a number of sites in Iraq between Friday and Sunday and met with top Shiite Muslim leaders. He returned to the Vatican on Monday.
"The Iraqi people have a right to live in peace, they have a right to rediscover the dignity that belongs to them," Pope Francis said in his remarks Wednesday, which included calling terrorism and war a "monster that mutates over the epochs."
The pope added that it's the responsibility of the entire world, not Iraqis, to end the repeating cycle of war there.
No pope before Francis had ever visited Iraq, although Pope John Paul II planned to do so in 2000 or 2001. Those plans were ultimately dashed by a rise in insurgent violence, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the U.S. invasion that ultimately overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein.
"In the past few days, the Lord allowed me to visit Iraq, carrying out a project of Saint John Paul II," Pope Francis said. "Never before has a Pope been in the land of Abraham.
"Providence willed that this should happen now, as a sign of hope, after years of war and terrorism, and during a severe pandemic."
In particular, Francis called his meeting with Muslim Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani in Najaf "unforgettable."
"I strongly felt a penitential sense regarding this pilgrimage," he said. "I could not draw near to that tortured people, to that martyr-Church, without taking upon myself, in the name of the Catholic Church, the cross they have been carrying for years; a huge cross, like the one placed at the entrance of Qaraqosh."