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'Baba al-Vatican': Pope Francis arrives in Iraq for historic visit

Head of Catholic Church greeted by dancing and dignitaries for Iraq's first ever papal visit
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi welcomed Pope Francis at Baghdad International Airport (Reuters)

Pope Francis said he was "happy" to land in Iraq for the first ever papal visit to the country, where he will meet one of the world's oldest and most persecuted Christian communities. 

Iraqi dancers gave the 84-year-old pontiff a traditional welcome as he walked down a red carpet with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who welcomed him at Baghdad International Airport.  

"I'm happy to resume travel, and this symbolic trip is also a duty to a land that has been martyred for years," Francis told journalists aboard his plane. 

Iraqi President Barham Salih also welcomed the pope's visit and said: "The continued migration of Christians from the region will have a detrimental impact on us all." 

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Unlike previous papal visits, Pope Francis said he would limit the number of hands he will be shaking because of the coronavirus, but vowed before his arrival to "not stay too far" from his followers. 

Iraq continues to record at least 5,000 daily positive coronavirus cases as it continues to battle Covid-19. 

The Iraqis have vowed to keep security tight for the pope during his visit after rockets were fired at US military targets days before Francis touched down. 

Foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf said Iraqi authorities had imposed tight security "over the land and air" to ensure the visit goes smoothly.

The pope will be travelling across Iraq, including areas where Iraqi forces are still fighting the Islamic State group (IS). 

He will preside over half a dozen services in ravaged churches, refurbished stadiums and remote desert locations, with attendance being limited to enable social distancing. 

For shorter trips, Francis will take an armoured car on freshly paved roads lined with flowers and posters welcoming the leader known here as "Baba al-Vatican".

He will also visit the northern province of Nineveh, where IS fighters in 2014 forced minorities to flee, convert to Islam or be killed.

Catholic charity Aid to Church in Need said that at least 100,000 people, around half of the province's Christians, fled - of whom just 36,000 have returned. 

A third of returnees want to leave permanently, dismayed by Iraq's rampant corruption, persecution and poverty, which now affects 40 percent of the population.

Iraq said it has tightened security to ensure the Pope is safe throughout his visit (AFP)
Iraq said it has tightened security to ensure the Pope is safe throughout his visit (AFP)

The visit aims to encourage Christians to stay in their homeland and even prompt some emigres to return from nearby Lebanon or Jordan or the diaspora in countries like Canada or Australia.

The pope's decision to travel to areas long shunned by foreign dignitaries has impressed many in Iraq - as has his planned meeting with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top authority for Iraq's Shia.

A highly reclusive figure who rarely accepts visitors, Sistani, who is 90, will make an exception to host Francis at his humble home in the shrine city of Najaf on Saturday. 

Francis, a major supporter of inter-religious dialogue, will afterwards hold an interfaith service at the desert site of the ancient city of Ur, where Abraham is thought to have been born.

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