Pope Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday to convince the country”s dwindling Christian population to rebuild after years of war and persecution.
Banners and posters announced his visit in Baghdad and billboards depicting the pope decorated the main thoroughfare.
His first-ever papal visit comes amid the COVID-19 pandemic and security concerns in the country.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said Iraqis were eager to welcome the pope’s “message of peace and tolerance” and described the visit as a historic meeting between the “minaret and the bells.”
The three-day visit will include a meeting with Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
The Iraqi government is eager to show off the relative security it has achieved after years of wars and militant attacks that continue even today.
Francis and the Vatican delegation are relying on Iraqi security forces to protect them, including with the expected first use of an armoured car for the pontiff.
“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 this week. The aim of Francis’ visit, he said, is to encourage them to “hold onto hope.”
The visit comes as Iraq is seeing a spike in COVID-19 infections, with many cases traced to the more contagious UK variant.
The 84-year-old pope, the Vatican delegation and travelling media have been vaccinated but most Iraqis have not.
The Vatican and Iraqi authorities have downplayed the threat of the virus and insisted that social distancing, crowd control and other health care measures will be enforced.
The Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, said this week the important thing is for Iraqis to know that the pope came to Iraq as an “act of love.”
“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.”
Christians were once a sizeable minority in Iraq but have dwindled in number since the 2003 US-led invasion. Their numbers further decreased during the Islamic State reign from 2014 to 2017.
Few have returned from exile and those who have found their homes and churches destroyed.
Exact numbers are hard to come by but there were an estimated 1.4 million Christians in Iraq in 2003 and today the number is believed to be just around 250,000.
Pope Francis plans to pray in the Baghdad church, site of one of the worst massacres of Christians.
He will honour the dead in a Mosul square surrounded by shells of destroyed churches and meet with the small Christian community that returned to Qaraqosh, where he will bless their church that was used as a firing range by the Islamic State.
The Vatican and the pope have frequently insisted on the need to preserve Iraq’s ancient Christian communities and create the security, economic and social conditions for those who have left to return. But that hasn’t necessarily translated into reality.
“I am the only priest in Mosul. Every Sunday I hold mass at 9 a.m., and only around 70 people attend,” said the Rev. Raed Adil Kelo, parish priest of the Church of the Annunciation in Mosul, the onetime de-facto IS capital.
Before 2003, the Christian population was 50,000, he said. It had dwindled to 2,000 before IS overran northern Iraq.
He doesn’t expect more to return, but he nevertheless said Francis’ visit would have immeasurable importance for those who stayed.
“This visit will bring peace to Iraq” he said.