Pope Francis heads to war-ravaged Iraq in historic trip

Pope Francis waves as he boards the plane for his visit to Iraq, at Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport in Rome, Italy, on March 5, 2021. (Reuters)

Pope Francis is scheduled to travel to several parts of Iraq from March 5-8 in his first-ever visit to the Arab country which comes after a spate of rocket and suicide bomb attacks raising fears for the Catholic leader’s safety.

Pope Francis has begun a historic trip to war-battered Iraq, defying security fears and the pandemic to comfort one of the world’s oldest and most persecuted Christian communities.

The 84-year-old, who said he would make the first-ever papal visit to Iraq on Friday as a “pilgrim of peace,” will also reach out to Muslims when he meets Iraq’s top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

The four-day journey is the pope’s first abroad since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which left the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics saying he felt “caged” inside the Vatican.

While Francis has been vaccinated, Iraq has been gripped by a second wave with a record of over 5,000 new cases a day, prompting authorities to impose full lockdowns during the pontiff’s visit.

Security will be tight in Iraq, which has endured years of war and insurgency, is still hunting for Daesh sleeper cells, and days ago saw a barrage of rockets plough into a military base.

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