Pope Francis landed in northern Iraq on Sunday to cap his historic tour to the country with a visit to Christian communities that endured the brutality of a jihadist “caliphate”.
The heaviest deployment of security forces yet has been mobilised to protect the 84-year-old on what is perhaps his riskiest day in Iraq.
Francis landed early on Sunday at the airport in the Kurdish regional capital of Arbil, targeted just a few weeks ago by a volley of rockets that killed two people.
He held a brief meeting with regional president Nechirvan Barzani and his cousin, the prime minister Masrour Barzani.
The pontiff will then travel by helicopter to lead a prayer “for the victims of the war” in the city of Mosul, an ancient crossroads overrun by the Islamic State group in 2014.
“We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion,” Francis said at an interfaith service Saturday, one of the many stops on the first-ever papal visit to the war-scarred country.
Pope Francis’ trip to Iraq as a “pilgrim of peace” aims to reassure the country’s ancient, but dwindling, Christian community and to expand his dialogue with other religions.
The leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics on Saturday met Iraq’s top Shiite Muslim cleric, the reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who agreed that Iraq’s Christians should be able to live in “peace”.
“We all hope that this visit will be a good omen for the Iraqi people,” Adnane Youssef, a Christian from northern Iraq, told AFP. “We hope that it will lead to better days.”
– ‘Boost our morale’ –
The Christian community of Iraq has shrunk from 1.5 million before the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein to only 400,000 now, about one percent of the 40 million living in the Muslim-majority country.
Most of them had been living in the vast plains of the northern Nineveh province — which IS set in its sights in 2014.
Watching the horrors from afar at the time, Pope Francis said he was ready to come meet the displaced and other victims of war in a show of solidarity.
Seven years later, he will see for himself the devastated Old City of Mosul and the painstaking efforts to rebuild it.
He will then travel east to Qaraqosh, one of Iraq’s oldest Christian towns whose residents still speak a dialect of the language spoken by Jesus Christ.
It, too, was largely destroyed in 2014 when IS rampaged through the area, but its residents have trickled back since 2017 and slowly worked at rebuilding their hometown.
“This very important visit will boost our morale after years of difficulties, problems and wars,” said Father George Jahoula in Qaraqosh.
To honour the pope, local artisans wove a two-metre (6.5-foot) prayer shawl, or stole, with the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” prayers carefully hand-stitched in golden thread in Syriac.
It was given to Francis on his first day in Iraq on Friday.
– Holy mass in stadium –
Security is extra-tight in the north of Iraq, where state forces are still hunting IS remnants and sleeper cells.
Many thousands of troops and police have been deployed as the pope has criss-crossed Iraq, taking planes, helicopters and armoured convoys to cover more than 1,400 kilometres (870 miles) in-country.
The other major challenge is the Covid-19 pandemic, with Iraq gripped by a second wave bringing around 5,000 new cases per day.
Authorities have imposed a nationwide lockdown — ostensibly to keep cases down but also to help control movements during the Pope’s high-profile visit.
While Francis has been vaccinated, Iraq has only just begun a modest inoculation campaign and there are fears that the crowds gathering to see him could lead to super-spreader events.
The biggest event yet will be on Sunday afternoon, when several thousand people will gather at Arbil’s Franso Hariri stadium for the Pope’s last mass in Iraq.
Arbil has been a relative haven of stability and a place of refuge for many Christians who fled IS.