Pope Francis lands in Baghdad, beginning the first-ever papal trip to Iraq

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BAGHDAD — With cheering, partially masked crowds and armed security lining the roads, Pope Francis began the first-ever papal trip to Iraq on Friday, seeking reconciliation in a country with an extraordinary biblical history, a surging coronavirus outbreak and ongoing political turmoil.

He called for cooperation among ethnic groups in the palace once used by autocrat Saddam Hussein. He called for an end to religious violence in a church where, 10 years earlier, gunmen had killed 58 people, leaving flesh on the pews.

“I come as a pilgrim of peace,” Francis said.

Francis’s four-day visit is his first international trip since the start of the pandemic and marks a return to the globe-trotting diplomacy — especially to minority-Christian countries — that had been his hallmark.

Why the pope’s visit matters for Iraq’s Christians

Some have questioned why he is choosing to make the trip now, given the multitude of threats. Militias are competing for power and launching rocket attacks. The Islamic State has been beaten back but not fully eliminated. And coronavirus cases have climbed higher and higher over the past month, prompting the Iraqi government to impose a curfew and other restrictions, including on religious gatherings.

But in choosing to travel in the face of the risks, to a country known foremost for its war scars and suffering, Francis has reassembled some of the ingredients that years earlier made his papacy feel so novel. He is traveling at a time when other global figures are staying put, aiming to play a hand in the reconstruction of a country where decades of efforts have failed. His trip amounts to a show of encouragement for a nation trying to recover from the chaos of a U.S.-led invasion and the brutality of the Islamic State, a group that once vowed to “conquer Rome.”

Speaking briefly aboard the papal plane on the way to Baghdad, Francis called the trip “emblematic” and said he was duty-bound to visit a nation that has been “martyred for so many years.”

“I am happy to be traveling again,” the pope said.

The Vatican had said Francis’s events would include smaller crowds than usual, as a way to decrease the risk of coronavirus transmission. But several thousand people nonetheless lined highway roads hoping to get a glimpse of the pope.

In closer proximity to the pontiff, who has been vaccinated, some of the safety measures seemed lax. Unmasked singers, crowded together, greeted Francis at the airport, as did Iraqi dignitaries lining a red carpet.

In his first remarks of the trip, at Iraq’s presidential palace, Francis provided a broad view of his hopes for society trying to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic. He called not only for the equitable distribution of vaccines, but also — noting Iraq’s sectarian conflicts — said it was time for humanity to embrace “what unites us.”

“In this regard, the religious, cultural and ethnic diversity that has been a hallmark of Iraqi society for millennia is a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to be eliminated,” the pope said.

Later in the day, Francis spoke to bishops and other religious figures at the Our Lady of Salvation Church, site of the 2010 attack by gunmen from an affiliate of al-Qaeda, where he said that violence was “incompatible with authentic religious teachings.”

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