Pope Francis makes first papal visit to Iraq amid security fears – BBC News

pope francis has arrived in baghdad at the start of the first ever papal visit to iraq it's been described as his most risky foreign trip these are live pictures from baghdad where the pope has just arrived at a church and there has been some concern with a recent surge in coronavirus cases that of course wherever the pope travels big crowds tend to gather and there were concerns about that although uh we have been told that the 84 year old pontiff has had two doses of the pfizer biontech vaccine and his entourage as well those traveling with him have also been vaccinated two main strands to the visit one to embolden and reassure the dwindling christian community in iraq but also a second strand to foster dialogue between the different faiths so there are a number of symbolic moments obviously the first day as uh custom and tradition dictates the pope met with political leaders he was welcomed by uh the iraqi president barum salah who said the pope was a cherished guest in iraq let's have a listen uh to what the pope had to say during his first remarks of the trip so far i express my deep gratitude to the president for the kind invitation and the warm welcoming words that he kindly addressed to me also on behalf of the authorities and his believed beloved people i would like equally to greet all the members of the diplomatic clubs and representatives of the social society i also greet affectionately all bishops all religious all priests bishops nuns priests and nuns and as i'm coming here as a pilgrim to encourage them to express and practice their faith hope and charity in the iraqi society a little earlier i spoke to our correspondent mark lovin who was in baghdad it's an extremely historic uh trip for pope francis as you say the first papal trip to iraq ever and pope francis's first trip abroad since the covid pandemic so an audacious trip and a risky one as well he is coming here to a country where the christian communities you laid out in that introduction is dwindling it is under threat it was one and a half million estimated to be before the 2003 invasion now numbering just about 250 000.

So his message will be very much to try to reassure and and comfort uh iraq's christian community but it is also a message urging interreligious dialogue so he is now holding meetings with the president and the prime minister today we understand that he is speaking of the need for fraternal coexistence strengthening iraq's democracy and then tomorrow saturday then pope francis has a a hugely symbolic meeting with iraq's top shia cleric ayatollah al-sistani that is a meeting of the of the top shia figure in iraq one of the most powerful people in this country and the leader of 1.8 billion catholics around the world a hugely symbolic meeting and yet it is a risky trip too because it is a country of course that has been torn by inter-religious and sectarian conflict and also of course by the covert pandemic which is seeing new highs many ben had advised pope francis not to travel at this time but he was determined to do so determined to come to this extremely important country he told me on the plane out here from rome that he was very happy and that this was as he described it a special trip and of course uh to time the trip now um i mean it is a bold statement isn't it because although is has been pushed back it has not been eliminated the covid pandemic is a concern and also the the security risks are still very much there absolutely and and because of the covid risk um there are limited public gatherings apart from a mass on sunday in erbil in northern iraq in which up to 10 000 people are expected to attend and that has raised fears that this whole trip could in effect become a super spreader now you mentioned there the the the the risk from from islamic militants and from jihadist attacks well there were rocket attacks just last week into the green zone here in in baghdad by shia groups there was a twin suicide bombing in january that killed 32 people so it is an extremely risky trip this probably the riskiest of his papacy but it is one which he feels absolutely determined to have come on it was one which his predecessors which pope john paul ii wanted to do he never managed to do it because negotiations broke down with salam hussein and so pope francis is the first pope ever to come to this country hugely important to christianity the birthplace of the prophet abraham correspondent mark lowen there in baghdad well these are live pictures from inside the church of our lady of salvation and it is a hugely significant moment because this is the syriac catholic church uh in the capital in baghdad where 52 christians and police were killed in an attack by jihadists in 2010 so a hugely symbolic moment this is uh the uh pope meeting clergy and bishops there and this really a very clear example of one of the purposes of this trip to embolden and reassure the dwindling numbers of christians in iraq that the world has not forgotten them

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