Pope Francis starts a historic trip to war-battered Iraq on Friday, 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 as a “pilgrim of peace,” will also reach out to Shiite 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 Islamic State sleeper cells, and days ago saw a barrage of rockets plough into a military base.
Francis will preside over a half-dozen services in ravaged churches, refurbished stadiums and remote desert locations, where attendance will be limited to allow for social distancing.