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BAGHDAD – Pope Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday to urge the country’s declining number of Christians to stay put and help rebuild the country after years of war and persecution, ruling out the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns for make his very first papal visit.

The Pope, who wore a mask during the flight, guarded him as he descended the stairs to the tarmac and was greeted by two masked children in traditional costume. But health measures appeared lax inside the airport despite the worsening coronavirus epidemic in the country.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said Iraqis were eager to welcome Francis’ “message of peace and tolerance” and described the visit as a historic meeting between “minaret and bells”. Highlights of the three-day visit included Francis’ private meeting on Saturday with the country’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered figure in Iraq and beyond.

Francis’ plane landed at Baghdad airport just before 2 p.m. local time (6 a.m.ET). A red carpet was rolled out on the tarmac at Baghdad International Airport with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on hand to greet him. Francis was visibly limping in a sign that his sciatica, which flared up and forced him to reverse events recently, may be bothering him.

A largely unmasked choir sang songs as the Pope and Prime Minister made their way to an airport reception area. People were walking around without masks, and the Pope and the Prime Minister took theirs off as they sat down for their first meeting – sitting within 2 meters of each other – and later stood there ‘next to each other shaking hands and chatting.

Hundreds of people had gathered along the airport road in hopes of seeing the Pope’s plane land.

The Iraqis were keen to welcome him and the global attention his visit will bring, with banners and posters hanging in central Baghdad, and billboards depicting Francis with the slogan “We are all brothers” decorating the main artery. In central Tahrir Square, a fake tree was erected with the Vatican emblem, while Iraqi and Vatican flags lined the empty streets.

The government is eager to show the relative security it has achieved after years of wars and militant attacks that continue to this day. Francis and the Vatican delegation are counting on Iraqi security forces to protect them, including with the planned first use of an armored car for the popemobile-loving pontiff.

Tahsin al-Khafaji, spokesperson for Iraq’s joint operations, said security forces had been beefed up.

“This visit is really important to us and gives a good perspective of Iraq because the whole world will be on the lookout,” he said. The high stakes will give Iraqi forces “the motivation to carry out this visit in security and peace.”

Francis breaks his one-year Covid-19 lockdown to refocus the world’s attention on a largely neglected people whose Christian communities in the north, which date back to the time of Christ, were largely emptied during the violent reign ISIS from 2014 to 2017.

For the Pope, who has often traveled to places where Christians are a persecuted minority, the besieged Christians of Iraq are the epitome of the “martyred church” he has admired since he was a young Jesuit seeking to be. missionary in Asia.

In Iraq, Francis seeks not only to honor his martyrs but also to deliver a message of reconciliation and brotherhood. The few Christians who remain in Iraq harbor a lingering distrust of their Muslim neighbors and face structural discrimination predating both Daesh and the 2003 US invasion that plunged the country into chaos.

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“The Pope’s visit is to help the Christians of Iraq to stay and to say that they are not forgotten,” Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Luis Sako told reporters in Baghdad this week. The purpose of Francis’ visit, he said, is to encourage them to “keep hope”.

Christians were once a large minority in Iraq, but their numbers began to decline after the US invasion in 2003. They fell further when IS militants swept through traditionally Christian towns across the plains of Nineveh in 2014. . Their extremist image of Islam forced locals to flee to the neighboring Kurdish region or beyond.

Few have returned and those who have found their homes and churches destroyed.

The returnees had to face more difficulties. Many cannot find work and blame discriminatory practices in the public sector, Iraq’s largest employer. Since 2003, public employment has been overwhelmingly controlled by the predominantly Shiite political elites, leaving Christians feeling marginalized.

Although exact numbers are hard to come by, there were around 1.4 million Christians in Iraq in 2003. Today, that number is estimated to be around 250,000.

During his visit, Francis will pray in the church in Baghdad which was the site of one of the worst massacres of Christians, the 2010 attack by Islamic militants which left 58 dead. He will honor the dead in a square in Mosul surrounded by the shells of destroyed churches and meet the small Christian community that has returned to Qaraqosh. He will bless their church, which was used as a shooting range by ISIS.

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