BAGHDAD (AP) — Pope Francis urged Iraqis on Friday to treat their Christian brothers as a precious resource to protect, not an “obstacle” to eliminate as he opened the first-ever papal visit to Iraq with a plea for tolerance and fraternity among Christians and Muslims.
Francis brushed aside the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns to resume his globe-trotting papacy after a yearlong hiatus spent under COVID-19 lockdown in Vatican City. His primary aim over the weekend is to encourage Iraq’s dwindling number of Christians, who were violently persecuted by the Islamic State group and still face discrimination by the Shiite majority, to stay and help rebuild the country devastated by wars and strife.
“Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as members of the same human family will we be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave to future generations a better, more just and more humane world,” Francis told Iraqi authorities in his welcoming address.
The 84-year-old pope donned a facemask during the flight from Rome and throughout all his protocol visits, as did his hosts. But the masks came off when the leaders sat down to talk, and social distancing and other health measures appeared lax at the airport and on the streets of Baghdad, despite the country’s worsening COVID-19 outbreak.
Francis, who relishes plunging into crowds and likes to travel in an open-sided popemobile, was transported around Baghdad in what Iraqi security officials said was an armored black BMWi750, flanked by rows of police on siren-blaring motorcycles. It was believed to be the first time Francis had used a bullet-proof car.
Iraqis seemed keen to welcome Francis and the global attention his visit was bringing, with some lining the road to cheer his motorcade and banners and posters hanging high in central Baghdad depicting Francis with the slogan “We are all Brothers.” In central Tahrir Square, a mock tree was erected emblazoned with the Vatican emblem, while Iraqi and Vatican flags lined empty streets.
The government is eager to show off the relative security it has achieved after years of wars and its defeat of the IS insurgency.
“This visit is really important to us and provides a good perspective of Iraq because the whole world will be watching,” Tahsin al-Khafaji, spokesman for Iraq’s joint operations, said in explaining the increased security.
At Baghdad international airport, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi greeted Francis as he descended from the Alitalia charter that landed shortly before 2 p.m. (1100GMT). Francis was visibly limping in a sign his sciatica, which has flared and forced him to cancel events recently, was possibly bothering him.
He told reporters aboard the papal plane that he was happy to be resuming his travels again.
“This is an emblematic journey,” he said. “It is also a duty to a land tormented by many years.”
Francis’ first main event was a pomp-filled courtesy visit with President Barham Salih at the Baghdad palace inside the heavily fortified Green Zone. Afterward, Francis told Salih and other Iraqi authorities that Christians and other minorities shouldn’t be considered a second-class citizen in Iraq but deserve to have the same rights and protections as the Shiite Muslim majority.
“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 eliminate,” he said. “Iraq today is called to show everyone, especially in the Middle East, that diversity, instead of giving rise to conflict, should lead to harmonious cooperation in the life of society.”
That’s a tough sell even for Christians, given the few Christians who remain in Iraq harbor a lingering mistrust of their Muslim neighbors and face discrimination that long predated IS.
Salih echoed his call and praised Francis for coming to make it in person in Iraq despite the pandemic and security concerns.
“The East cannot be imagined without Christians,” Salih said. “The continued migration of Christians from the countries of the east will have dire consequences for the ability of the people from the same region to live together.”
Christians once constituted a sizeable minority in Iraq, estimated at around 1.4 million. But their numbers began to fall after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein opened a wave of instability in which militants repeatedly targeted Christians.
They received a further blow when IS militants in 2014 swept through northern Iraq, including traditionally Christian towns across the Nineveh plains, some of which date from the time of Christ. Their extremist version of Islam forced residents to flee to the neighboring Kurdish region or further afield.