Pope Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday for the first ever papal visit to the Middle Eastern country, a place where the Christian community has dwindled amid years of war.
Covid and security fears have made this his riskiest visit yet, but the 84-year-old insisted he was “duty bound,” BBC reported.
Pope Francis was welcomed at Baghdad airport by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi.
The Pope will also celebrate Mass at a stadium in Irbil in the north.
About 10,000 Iraqi Security Forces personnel are being deployed to protect the Pope, while round-the-clock curfews are also being imposed to limit the spread of Covid.
Iraq’s PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi greeted Pope Francis at the airport, with a red carpet, Iraqis in national dress and songs from a largely unmasked choir.
Hundreds of people lined the airport road as the Pope’s convoy, heavily chaperoned by police motorcycles, left for the city.
However, the capital was largely empty due to a lockdown set to last until late on Sunday, though the streets were filled with pictures of the pope and Vatican flags flew in many places.
“Thank you for accompanying me, I am very happy to be able to resume the journeys,’’ Francis told reporters on the flight.
The 84-year-old will then travel across the country during his four-day visit.
Later on Friday, he is due to meet with Iraqi President Barham Salih as well as church and civil society representatives.
He will head south to meet influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in the city of Najaf on Saturday, followed by an interfaith meeting in Ur, which is mentioned in the Bible as the home of Abraham.
On Sunday, the pope will go to the northern autonomous Kurdistan region before heading to Mosul and Qaraqosh, where he will pray for the victims of the conflict with the Islamic State extremist group, who seized large areas of northern Iraq in 2014, killing and displacing thousands.
There were once more than one million Christians in Iraq, but now they are estimated to be between 250,000 and 400,000 after years of war, religious persecution and a steep economic decline.