dpa/GNA – Pope Francis was greeted with great excitement on Friday as he began the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, where the Christian community has dwindled after years of war and persecution.
His first day of the trip was filled with music, chants, flags and flowers as well as calls for equality, peace and embracing diversity.
Francis called on Iraqi politicians to guarantee equal rights to all citizens as well as to combat corruption and the misuse of power.
In an address during an official welcome ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Baghdad, Francis told the assembled officials and diplomats: “Let no citizen be regarded as a second-class citizen.”
As Iraq lays the foundation for a democratic society, it is “essential to ensure participation of all political, social and religious groups and guarantee fundamental rights of all citizens,” he said at the event attended by church and civil society representatives.
The pope told his listeners to encourage the spirit of fraternal solidarity and foster transparency, and also called on the international community to continue supporting Iraq.
Upon landing at Baghdad airport, the pope was welcomed with Iraqis dancing to traditional music and others waving flags inside a hall at the airport. Others gathered on the sides of the road outside the airport to greet him as his vehicle drove by.
While the capital was largely empty due to a lockdown set to last until late on Sunday, the streets were filled with pictures of the pope, and Vatican flags flew in many places.
Francis, who was vaccinated before the visit, shook hands with officials, clerics and a few Christians welcoming him throughout the day. While many wore face masks, some were seen removing it while talking to him.
Francis held bilateral talks with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi and President Barham Salih.
At the official ceremony, Salih thanked Francis for visiting Iraq despite “exceptional circumstances worldwide” due to the pandemic, as well as a tense security situation in the country.
This is the pope’s first trip since the coronavirus pandemic began.
“Overcoming all these circumstances doubles the value of your visit in the eyes of Iraqis,” Salih said.
Salih said that the continued emigration of Christians “will have dire consequences for the concepts of pluralism and tolerance.”
He said their return is needed for healing and ensuring diversity in the region, and acknowledged that “vigorous economic development efforts and restoring security” are needed to draw them back.
There were once more than 1 million Christians in Iraq, but now their population is estimated to be between 250,000 and 400,000 after years of war, religious persecution and a steep economic decline.
“We love you pope,” a group of Christians chanted in several languages as they clapped while welcoming the pope at the Sayidat al-Najat (Our Lady of Salvation) church in Baghdad.
The Syriac-Catholic church, the pope’s final stop on Friday, was the site of one of the worst massacres of Iraqi Christians in 2010, when dozens were killed by al-Qaeda-linked militants.
On Saturday, the 84-year-old will head south to meet an influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in the city of Najaf, 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, which seized large areas of northern Iraq in 2014, killing and displacing thousands.
In Cairo, the head of the prominent Sunni Muslim institution Al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, described the visit as “historic and courageous.”