Pope Francis arrived in Baghdad Friday for a three-day visit to war-torn Iraq. In his first international trip since the pandemic began, Francis hopes to convince the collapsing Christian population to rebuild after decades of war and oppression, according to WaPo. Since the 2003 US-led invasion of the oil-rich country, about one million Christians have fled; 2017 estimates show the population may be around 500k.
HAPPENING TODAY: Pope Francis has arrived in Baghdad, marking the first ever papal visit to Iraq.— Bloomberg Quicktake (@Quicktake) March 5, 2021
His trip will rally the country’s dwindling Christian community after decades of war pic.twitter.com/ughzpG6axK
Ahead of the pope's visit, we noted, "Iraq is being widely considered a security nightmare as both his own Vatican protection service and local police and military officials scramble to ensure nothing goes wrong."
Pope Francis marks the beginning of his historic Iraq tour https://t.co/XKg84qZ833— Reuters (@Reuters) March 5, 2021
Today's schedule for the pope will consist of meetings between priests, bishops, and other holy officials at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad. A decade ago, the church came under attack by terrorists who killed 58 people. Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said Iraqis were excited to welcome the pope's "message of peace and tolerance" and explained the visit as "historic." Months ago, we noted history would be made if Francis was to make the trip; that is because he would be the first pope ever to do so.
Francis will be accompanied by the Vatican delegation in armored vehicles surrounded by private and Iraqi security forces as they make the rounds and speak with Christian, Muslim, and other officials.
"The Pope's visit is to support the Christians in Iraq to stay, and to say that they are not forgotten, said Cardinal Luis Sako, the Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans. He said the visit is to encourage the dwindling Christian population to "hold onto hope."
The Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, told reporters this week that the pope has come to Iraq as an "act of love."
"I come among you as a pilgrim of peace, to repeat 'you are all brothers,'" Francis said in a video message to the Iraqi people ahead of his visit. "I come as a pilgrim of peace in search of fraternity, animated by the desire to pray together and walk together, also with brothers and sisters of other religious traditions."
Much of Francis' visit will be televised for Iraqi people and the world to see.
Something that won't be televised will likely be the most critical meeting of the trip: When Francis meets Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a top Shiite leader. Francis is expected to meet with the religious leader in the holy city of Najaf for about 30 minutes on Saturday.
Before his departure, the pope will mourn Iraqis' deaths "who have suffered so much" during the decades of war.
"This visit is part of his vision of what the world should look like after the pandemic, where one should deal both with economic problems and the problems of peace," Marco Politi, a papal biographer, said. "This is where the essential role of religions working together comes into play."
Separately, the White House warned Thursday it might unleash a military response to a rocket attack that struck an airbase in western Iraq where American and coalition troops are stationed. At least one contractor died Wednesday in the assault. Militias in the country are in an all-out battle for power as violence across the region increases, prompting questions why did Francis not delay the trip until tensions eased.
Watch: Pope Francis Arrives In Baghdad