Pope Francis on Friday, March 5, embarked on a historic trip to war-battered Iraq to comfort one of the world’s oldest and most persecuted Christian communities where more than a million have fled over the past 20 years.
The 84-year-old, who earlier said he was making the first-ever papal visit to Iraq as a ‘pilgrim of peace,’ will also meet the Shiite Muslims when he visits Iraq’s top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
The pope left Rome early Friday for the four-day journey, after boarding a flight at Leonardo da Vinci airport bound for the Iraqi capital Baghdad.
After his arrival in Iraq, the Pope will travel more than 870 miles by plane and helicopter, flying over areas where security forces are still battling IS remnants, Mail Online reports.
For shorter trips, Francis will take an armoured car on paved roads that will be lined with flowers and posters welcoming the leader known there as ‘Baba Al-Vatican’.
Francis will meet the dwindling Christian communities of Baghdad, Mosul and Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city in the Nineveh Plains, where, in 2014, the ISIL armed group wiped out the remnants of the Christian presence that had survived al-Qaeda’s violent campaigns, causing tens of thousands to flee and find refuge in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
In Erbil, the pope will meet the Kurdish authorities and some of the 150,000 Christian refugees from central Iraq that have found shelter there.
The visit of the pope has a highly symbolic value given the importance of Iraqi Christians in the history of the faith and their cultural and linguistic legacy dating back to the time of ancient Babylon, nearly 4,000 years ago.