Pope lands in Iraq in a highly symbolic visit for diminishing Iraqi Christian communities affected by conflict.
Pope Francis began a historic visit to Iraq on Friday, the first by a pontiff to the birthplace of the Eastern Churches from where more than a million Christians have fled over the past 20 years.
An Alitalia plane carrying the pontiff and his entourage, including about 75 journalists, arrived in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on Friday at about 2 pm local time amid tight security.
“This is an emblematic trip and it is a duty towards a land that has been martyred for so many years,” Francis said in brief comments to reporters aboard his plane.
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.
The systematic persecution of Iraqi Christians at the hands of al-Qaeda first and then ISIL (ISIS) in more recent years has pushed tens of thousands into diaspora and is threatening the community’s survival.
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.
“We hope the visit of the pope will bring some attention to the tragedy of Christians in the East and encourage them to stay,” said Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, the Iraq-born patriarch of the Chaldean Church, in a news conference on Wednesday. Here