Pope Francis embarked on Friday on the first ever papal visit to Iraq, his riskiest trip since his election in 2013, saying he felt duty-bound to make the “emblematic” visit because the country had suffered so much for so long.
His first stop after his plane touched down at Baghdad International Airport was to meet Iraqi President Barham Salih at the presidential palace, where a red carpet, military band and flock of doves greeted the pontiff.
Iraq has deployed thousands of additional security personnel to protect the 84-year-old pope during the visit, which comes after a spate of rocket and suicide bomb attacks raised fears for his safety.
A motorcade of dozens of vehicles accompanied Francis out of the airport compound, which has recently come under rocket fire from militia groups.
“I am happy to be making trips again,” he said in brief comments to reporters aboard his plane. The coronavirus pandemic has prevented Francis from travelling and the Iraq trip is his first outside Italy since November 2019.
“This is an emblematic trip and it is a duty towards a land that has been martyred for so many years,” Francis said, before donning a mask and greeting each reporter individually, without shaking hands.
Francis, who normally insists on using simple and small cars on his trips, was driven to the palace in a bullet-proof BMW sedan, security officials said.
As he and the president walked together, Francis limped noticeably, indicating that his sciatica may have flared up again. The condition forced him to cancel several events earlier this year.
Francis’s whirlwind tour will take him by plane, helicopter and possibly armoured car to four cities, including areas that most foreign dignitaries are unable to reach, let alone in such a short space of time.
He will say Mass at a Baghdad church, meet Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric in the southern city of Najaf and travel north to Mosul, where the army had to empty the streets for security reasons last year for a visit by Iraq’s prime minister.
Mosul is a former stronghold of Islamic State, and churches and other buildings there still bear the scars of conflict.