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Pope begins first-ever papal visit to Iraq, urges Christians to help rebuild country

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Pope Francis landed Friday in Iraq to start his long-anticipated visit to the country on a mission to encourage the minority Christian population, ignoring health and security concerns as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

The visit will be the first visit by a pope to the war-torn region.

The three-day trip will culminate in a private meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s top Shiite cleric and a revered figure in the Islamic world.

Pope Francis is flanked by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi upon his arrival at Baghdad's international airport, Iraq, Friday, March 5, 2021. Pope Francis heads to Iraq on Friday to urge the country's dwindling number of Christians to stay put and help rebuild the country after years of war and persecution, brushing aside the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Pope Francis is flanked by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi upon his arrival at Baghdad’s international airport, Iraq, Friday, March 5, 2021. Pope Francis heads to Iraq on Friday to urge the country’s dwindling number of Christians to stay put and help rebuild the country after years of war and persecution, brushing aside the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi greeted the pope as he disembarked his plane in Baghdad around 2 p.m. local time. Hundreds of people gathered along the airport road to wave to the pope and greet him.

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Tahsin al-Khafaji, spokesman for Iraq’s joint operations, said security forces had been increased.

Pope Francis is greeted by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi as he arrives at Baghdad's international airport, Iraq, Friday, March 5, 2021. The pope is seeking to deliver a message of reconciliation and fraternity, a tough sell given the few Christians who remain in Iraq harbor a lingering mistrust of their Muslim neighbors and face structural discrimination that long predated IS and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that threw the country into chaos. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Pope Francis is greeted by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi as he arrives at Baghdad’s international airport, Iraq, Friday, March 5, 2021. The pope is seeking to deliver a message of reconciliation and fraternity, a tough sell given the few Christians who remain in Iraq harbor a lingering mistrust of their Muslim neighbors and face structural discrimination that long predated IS and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that threw the country into chaos. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

“This visit is really important to us and provides a good perspective of Iraq because the whole world will be watching,” al-Khafaji said, adding that the high stakes will give Iraqi forces “motivation to achieve this visit with safety and peace.”

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The pope’s visit aims to urge the country’s dwindling Christian population to remain in the country and help rebuild it following years of war and persecution. He will also honor martyrs in the country as he attempts to heal deep mistrust between the Christian and Muslim populations.

Security stand by a poster depicting Pope Francis, in Baghdad Iraq, Friday, March 5, 2021. Pope Francis heads to Iraq on Friday to urge the country's dwindling number of Christians to stay put and help rebuild the country after years of war and persecution, brushing aside the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Security stand by a poster depicting Pope Francis, in Baghdad Iraq, Friday, March 5, 2021. Pope Francis heads to Iraq on Friday to urge the country’s dwindling number of Christians to stay put and help rebuild the country after years of war and persecution, brushing aside the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

“The Pope’s visit is to support the Christians in Iraq to stay, and to say that they are not forgotten,” the Chaldean patriarch, Cardinal Luis Sako, told reporters in Baghdad. The aim of Francis’ visit, he said, is to encourage them to “hold onto hope.”

The chief security concern is the spiking coronavirus pandemic: cases in Iraq have risen over the past month, almost tripling in that time. The 84-year-old pope, the Vatican delegation and traveling media have all been vaccinated; most Iraqis have not.

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“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 on the eve 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.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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