Pope Francis has touched down in Iraq for the first-ever papal visit to the predominantly Muslim country, beginning a four-day visit in Baghdad, where yellow and white Vatican flags and likenesses of the pontiff flutter above hastily weeded traffic circles. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi welcomed Francis at Baghdad International Airport. He was greeted with fanfare as he stepped onto the red carpet, and then by a choir as he entered the airport.
Crowds of people waved Iraqi and Vatican flags as he passed on his way to sit and speak with the prime minister in a reception area of the airport. As Francis left the airport, he passed people dancing and singing, few of whom were wearing masks. In his first trip outside of Italy in more than a year, Pope Francis is also seeking to pursue his signature cause of better relations with the Muslim world, despite the country’s spike in Covid-19 infections and continuing violence. The pope is one of the first world leaders to resume high-profile international visits since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Iraq has long been high on Pope Francis’ list of countries to visit, but the timing of the trip has caused consternation among Vatican officials. Iraq’s government has arranged heavy security, with soldiers lining the streets of Baghdad where the pope’s convoy passed.
“I am coming as a pilgrim, as a penitent pilgrim, to implore from the Lord forgiveness and reconciliation after years of war and terrorism, to beg from God the consolation of hearts and the healing of wounds,” Pope Francis said in a video message broadcast on Iraqi television Wednesday night.