Pope Francis has called for an end to “violence and extremism” in his opening address on the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, long scarred by war and now gripped by the coronavirus pandemic.
The 84-year-old defied a second wave of the global pandemic and renewed security fears to make a “long-awaited” trip to comfort one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, while also deepening his dialogue with Muslims.
“May there be an end to acts of violence and extremism, factions and intolerance,” urged Francis in the stirring address at the presidential palace in Baghdad on Friday.
Francis landed in the afternoon at Baghdad International Airport, where he was greeted by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi, as well as groups showcasing Iraq’s diverse folklore music and dance.
He then met President Barham Salih – who had extended the official invitation to the pontiff in 2019 – as well as other government and religious figures.
At the palace, the head of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics gave a moving address, stressing the deep roots of Christianity in Iraq.
“The age-old presence of Christians in this land, and their contributions to the life of the nation, constitute a rich heritage that they wish to continue to place at the service of all,” said Pope Francis.
He also urged Iraqi officials to “combat the scourge of corruption, misuse of power and disregard for law” in a country consistently ranked one of the most corruption-tainted by Transparency International.
The pope, a prominent advocate for interfaith dialogue, also hailed other devastated Iraqi minorities.
“Here, among so many who have suffered, my thoughts turn to the Yazidis, innocent victims of senseless and brutal atrocities,” he said.
Just like Iraq’s Christian population, the esoteric Yazidi community was ravaged in 2014 when ISIL (ISIS) swept through much of northern Iraq.
‘Victory’ over death
The visit is the pontiff’s first trip abroad since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, which had left him feeling “caged” in Vatican City – and it has been hailed as a bold choice.
Iraq endured decades of war, is still hunting for ISIL cells and is now facing a second spike of coronavirus infections, with more than 5,000 new cases and dozens of deaths daily.
Authorities have imposed a full lockdown through the papal trip, which means Francis will not be greeted by massive crowds like on other foreign trips.
The pope has been vaccinated and was seen taking off his mask on Friday to speak with officials and religious figures in Baghdad, just days after Iraq launched its modest inoculation campaign.
“I’ll try to follow directions and not shake hands with everyone, but I don’t want to stay too far,” Francis said before his arrival.
At Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral, Francis prayed and honored the victims of one of the worst massacres of Christians, the 2010 attack on the cathedral by armed group members that left 58 people dead.
Speaking to congregants, he urged Christians to persevere in Iraq to ensure that its Catholic community, “though small like a mustard seed, continues to enrich the life of society as a whole” — using an image found in both the Bible and Quran.
On Sunday, Francis will honor the dead in a Mosul square surrounded by shells of destroyed churches and meet with the small Christian community that returned to the town of Qaraqosh, where he will bless their church that was vandalised and used as a firing range by ISIL.
Commenting on the main address, Eleanor Robson, who specialises in ancient Middle Eastern Science at the University of Cambridge, told Al Jazeera the visit was significant in that it was “finally a chance to present Iraq in a very different way”.
Speaking from Baghdad, Al Jazeera’s Simona Foltyn said while the pope “mostly focused on the spiritual side of things, he also hinted at some governance issues such as corruption and lack of justice which are of great concern especially to Iraqi minorities like the Christians.
“He is very much here to inspire hope and foster peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims.”
He was also seen walking with a slight limp, likely a result of a painful bout of sciatica that he has suffered this year.
The pope will travel more than 1,400km (870 miles) by plane and helicopter, flying over areas where security forces are still battling ISIL.
For shorter trips, Francis will take an armoured car on freshly paved roads lined with flowers and posters welcoming him warmly as “Baba al-Vatican”.
He will address the faithful later on Friday afternoon at the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad’s commercial Karrada district, where attendance has been restricted to allow for social distancing.
In 2010, armed groups stormed the church and killed 44 worshippers, two priests and many security personnel in one of the bloodiest attacks on Iraq’s Christians.
Now, stained-glass windows at the church bear the victims’ names and a defiant message above the altar reads, “Where is your victory, oh death?”
The pontiff will also visit Ur, the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, and meet Iraq’s revered top Shia Muslim leader, 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
The meeting with al-Sistani, who wields great influence over Iraq’s Shia majority and in the country’s politics, will be the first by a pope.