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Pope Francis embarks on dangerous, historic Iraq tour

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Pope Francis embarked on Friday on the initially at any time papal check out to Iraq, his riskiest excursion given that his election in 2013, indicating he felt responsibility-bound to make the “emblematic” go to because the region experienced suffered so a great deal for so prolonged.

His 1st cease right after his plane touched down at Baghdad Intercontinental Airport was to meet up with Iraqi President Barham Salih at the presidential palace, the place a purple carpet, military services band and flock of doves greeted the pontiff.

Iraq has deployed countless numbers of additional stability staff to shield the 84-year-outdated pope all through the take a look at, which will come right after a spate of rocket and suicide bomb attacks elevated fears for his safety.

A motorcade of dozens of cars accompanied Francis out of the airport compound, which has lately occur underneath rocket fireplace from militia groups.

“I am pleased to be generating visits yet again,” he stated in quick comments to reporters aboard his aircraft. The coronavirus pandemic has prevented Francis from travelling and the Iraq vacation is his very first exterior Italy given that November 2019.

“This is an emblematic vacation and it is a responsibility to a land that has been martyred for so several several years,” Francis stated, in advance of donning a mask and greeting just about every reporter separately, without the need of shaking palms.

Francis, who typically insists on using very simple and small cars on his visits, was driven to the palace in a bullet-proof BMW sedan, stability officials explained.

As he and the president walked alongside one another, Francis limped noticeably, indicating that his sciatica may perhaps have flared up once again. The problem forced him to terminate many gatherings previously this calendar year.

Francis’s whirlwind tour will just take him by aircraft, helicopter and potentially armoured motor vehicle to 4 towns, together with locations that most foreign dignitaries are not able to attain, permit alone in such a limited room of time.

He will say Mass at a Baghdad church, fulfill Iraq’s leading Shi’ite Muslim cleric in the southern city of Najaf and journey north to Mosul, where the military experienced to empty the streets for stability causes previous calendar year for a check out by Iraq’s primary minister.

Mosul is a former stronghold of Islamic Point out, and churches and other structures there still bear the scars of conflict.

VIOLENCE AND HOPE

Considering the fact that the defeat of the Islamic Condition militants in 2017, Iraq has noticed a better degree of security, nevertheless violence persists, frequently in the variety of rocket assaults by Iran-aligned militias on U.S. targets, and U.S. armed forces action in reaction.

On Wednesday 10 rockets landed on an airbase that hosts U.S., coalition and Iraqi forces. Several hours later on, Francis reaffirmed he would journey to Iraq.

Islamic State also stays a threat. In January, a suicide assault claimed by the Sunni militant team killed 32 people in Baghdad’s deadliest such assault for yrs.

Francis will meet up with clergy at a Baghdad church in which Islamist gunmen killed additional than 50 worshippers in 2010. Violence against Iraq’s minority religious teams, particularly when a third of the nation was remaining operate by Islamic Condition, has lessened its ancient Christian neighborhood to a fifth of its once 1.5 million individuals.

The pontiff will also pay a visit to Ur, birthplace of the prophet Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, and fulfill Iraq’s revered top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, 90-calendar year-previous Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

The assembly with Sistani, who wields great impact over Iraq’s Shi’ite vast majority and in the country’s politics, will be the initially by a pope.

Some Shi’ite militant teams have opposed the pope’s take a look at, framing it as Western interference in Iraq’s affairs, but several Iraqis hope that it can aid foster a new see of Iraq.

“It could possibly not change considerably on the floor, but at the very least if the pope visits, people today will see our state in a different mild, not just bombs and war,” mentioned Ali Hassan, a 30-calendar year-outdated Baghdad resident finding up kinfolk at the airport.

Reporting by Philip Pullella on the papal aircraft, John Davison in Baghdad Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Gareth Jones and Frances Kerry

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