ROME/BAGHDAD: Pope Francis on Friday called for an end to extremism, violence and corruption as his historic visit to Iraq got underway.
He began the first-ever papal trip to the country by meeting government officials in Baghdad, before traveling to a church where Christians were massacred by militants in 2010.
He was greeted at Baghdad’s International Airport by Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and treated to a display of traditional dancing.
He then met President Barham Salih at the Presidential Palace, where he delivered a strongly worded speech highlighting the problems that continued to blight the country.
“May the clash of arms be silenced,” he said. “Enough of violence, extremism, factions, intolerance. Iraq has suffered the disastrous effects of wars, the scourge of terrorism and sectarian conflicts often grounded in a fundamentalism incapable of accepting the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups.”
The pope, referring to the outside influences often blamed for destabilizing Iraq, said the international community must provide help “without imposing ideologies” and urged Iraqi officials to “combat the scourge of corruption, misuse of power and disregard for law.”
His visit comes as Iraq attempts to claw its way to stability after years of sectarian conflict, the Daesh occupation, chronic corruption, and widespread anger at government officials for failing to provide basic services. Iraq’s Christian population has also dwindled, with many fleeing overseas to build new lives.
But the pope hailed Iraq as a “cradle of civilization,” despite its many problems, and believed that all the crises it faced could be overcome by building a society based on fraternity, solidarity and concord.
He said that Iraq, with its varied religions, culture and ethnicities, could show that diversity should lead to harmony within society rather than conflict.
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He drew attention to the Yazidi sect, many of whom were murdered by Daesh in 2014, and called them “innocent victims of senseless and brutal atrocities, persecuted and killed for their religion, and whose very identity and survival was put at risk.”
He said room should be made for all those who wanted to build up Iraq in a way that included the participation of all political, social and religious groups.
The Catholic Church in Iraq, he added, wanted to cooperate constructively with other religions in serving the cause of peace.
He traveled across the city in an armored black BMWi750 rather than the popemobile normally used for foreign visits. The motorcade included dozens of police on motorcycles.
Iraq’s security situation was the greatest threat as to whether the visit would go ahead, along with the challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. But concerns over Daesh sleeper cells and recent rocket attacks on US bases by Iran-backed militants failed to deter him.
At Our Lady of Salvation church, he paid tribute to the 58 people who were killed in an extremist attack in 2010, one of the deadliest targeting Christians.
“We are gathered in this Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, hallowed by the blood of our brothers and sisters who here paid the ultimate price of their fidelity to the Lord and his Church,” he said.
On Saturday the pope will meet Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani in Najaf, and visit the birthplace of Prophet Abraham in Ur.