The journey, which marks the first-ever papal go to to Iraq, additionally consists of conferences with the nation’s high political and spiritual officers. It is the pontiff’s first journey outdoors of Italy because the begin of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I am happy to start trips again and this is a symbolic trip. It’s a duty,” the Pope advised journalists touring with him on the papal airplane. “It has been a martyred land for too long.”
On Friday, the pontiff held conferences with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and President Barham Salih. Rows of conventional dancers, none of whom wore masks, greeted the Pope as he arrived at Baghdad International Airport.
Pope Francis and his entourage have all been vaccinated in opposition to Covid-19.
The Pope sat on a throne below a towering collage of the parish members who died within the terrorist assault. “We are gathered in this Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, hallowed by the blood of our brothers and sisters who here paid the ultimate price of their fidelity to the Lord and his Church,” the pontiff mentioned.
“Holy Father, we are healing our wounds, and here you are, healing our wounds with us,” mentioned President Salih in an impassioned speech on Friday at a gathering with the Pope.
The Pope mentioned he has come to Iraq as a “pilgrim.”
“I come as a penitent, asking forgiveness of heaven and my brothers and sisters for so much destruction and cruelty,” mentioned the pontiff throughout a speech on Friday. “I come as a pilgrim of peace in the name of Christ, the Prince of Peace. How much we have prayed in these years for peace in Iraq.”
“For some time I have wanted to meet that people who suffered so much, Francis said on Wednesday. “The folks of Iraq are ready for us. They have been ready for St. Pope John Paul II, who was not allowed to go,” he added, referring to a planned trip in 2000 which was canceled after a breakdown in talks between the Vatican and then President Saddam Hussein.
“The folks can’t be let down for a second time. Let us pray that this journey may be carried out effectively.”
Iraqi officials have hailed the visit as an important moment for the country, while privately admitting that the timing of the trip has proved a challenge for authorities.
Iraq has imposed a total curfew for the entirety of the four-day papal visit in an attempt to minimize health and security risks.
One of the key parts of the Pope’s itinerary is a Saturday visit to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a widely revered Shia cleric. Sistani will receive the pontiff at his residence in the holy city of Najaf, to the south of Baghdad.
The papal meeting with the 90-year old Sistani — who is rarely seen in public — can be seen as one of the most significant summits between a pope and a leading Shia Muslim figure.
Francis has met with leading Sunni cleric Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb on several occasions, famously co-signing a 2019 document pledging “human fraternity” between world religions.
The meeting with Sistani is expected by some to serve as the Shia Muslim component of the pontiff’s efforts to bolster interfaith relations.
‘I hope the Pope stays for a month’
The Pope is also scheduled to visit several Iraqi areas and cities linked to the Bible, such as the plain of Ur, considered the birthplace of Abraham.
He is believed to have long wished to go to Iraq, which figures heavily in the Old Testament, and whose dwindling Christian minority has suffered greatly from the country’s long cycles of violence.
Thought to be one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, prior to the 2003 US invasion, there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Around 80% of them have since fled, according to leading Christian clerics there.
Members of the Christian minority, which was the target of repeated attacks by extremists, say they hope the papal visit will underscore the neglect they feel they have endured from Iraq’s authorities.
Many in the country’s Muslim majority, who loudly complain about government corruption and mismanagement, also have their hopes pinned on trip.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis staged months-long street demonstrations, some of which were violently quashed, in the months before the coronavirus pandemic began to spread here.
“The nation wants providers, safety and peace,” said 50-year-old Mohammed Jassem. “[The Pope] cannot give us these items however we ask him to name on the management and the events for these items.”
“We name on him to unify its ethnicity … the nation requires unity and we hope he can carry us this,” he added.
Iraqi authorities have been busy preparing for the papal visit, cleaning streets and re-paving others where the Vatican delegation is scheduled to go. New street lamps light the roads and many previously broken traffic lights are back in commission.
The irony is not lost on Iraqis. “The streets of Baghdad have change into quite a bit higher inside every week,” said 41-year-old shopkeeper Ahmad al-Assadi. “I want he would keep for a month and tour all of Iraq … perhaps then they will repair your complete nation.”
CNN’s Ben Wedeman, Ghazi Balkiz in Baghdad contributed to this report. CNN’s Hamdi Alkhshali contributed to this report from Atlanta.