Pope Francis lands in Iraq for historic papal visit

Pope Francis lands in Iraq for historic papal visit
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Pope FrancisPope FrancisRetired pope says he hopes to soon join friends in 'the afterlife' Religion and the G-20: With faith, we can move mountains The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Jan. 6 panel flexes its muscle MORE on Friday landed in Iraq for a historic first-ever papal visit to the country as it deals with the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing political conflict.

The purpose of the trip is to encourage Iraq's Christian population, which has been violently persecuted by the Islamic State group.

The pope’s four-day trip to the majority Muslim country will also include the first papal visit with a grand ayatollah, Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani, over the weekend.

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Before leaving, the 84-year-old said he would proceed to Iraq “God willing” and that he had long wanted to visit people who have "suffered so much,” according to The Washington Post.

Previously, Pope John Paul II had attempted to make a visit to the country two decades ago, but the trip was canceled by then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

“One cannot disappoint a people for the second time,” Francis said. “Let us pray that this journey can be done well.”

However, the U.S. Embassy in Iraq issued a warning to American citizens in the country about extremist attacks on Friday while the pope was en route. 

“Attacks may occur with little or no warning, impacting airports, tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, and local government facilities. Iraqi and Western facilities and places frequented by U.S. citizens and other Westerners may also be targeted,” the alert read.

The trip comes amid ongoing violence in the country. On Wednesday, an airbase housing U.S.-led coalition troops at Al Asad was attacked by at least 10 rockets.

There are no reports of U.S. service members being injured and all are accounted for, though a U.S. civilian contractor suffered a cardiac episode while sheltering and died shortly after.

Public health experts have also advised against the trip amid concerns that the pope’s presence in the country will likely draw crowds and risk spreading COVID-19.

Iraq declared a partial lockdown in February as coronavirus cases increased, shutting down mosques and schools. According to data from Johns Hopkins University, Iraq has confirmed more than 700,000 cases and more than 13,000 related deaths.

Francis, his 20-person entourage and the dozens of reporters on his plane have been vaccinated, according to the Vatican. However, Iraq only began receiving doses of Chinese vaccines just this week. 

Thousands are expected to attend an outdoor stadium event in Irbil on Sunday, the Post reported.

The Vatican defended the trip, calling it an “act of love for this land, for its people, and for its Christians.”

“An entire community and an entire country will be able to follow this journey through the media and know that the pope is there for them, bringing a message that it is possible to hope even in situations that are most complicated."