Reuters / Baghdad
Pope Francis, making the first trip by a pontiff to Iraq, made an impassioned call yesterday for an end to the militant violence, fratricide and religious strife that has plagued the country for decades, saying peacemakers should finally be given a chance.
“May the clash of arms be silenced ... may there be an end to acts of violence and extremism,” he said, addressing Iraqi President Barham Salih, politicians and diplomats at the presidential palace.
Francis arrived at Baghdad airport under tight security, after telling reporters on his plane that he felt duty-bound to make the “emblematic” trip because the country “has been martyred for so many years”. Hundreds of people gathered in small clusters to see him being driven into Baghdad in bulletproof BMW, a departure for a Pope who normally insists on using small, normal cars. A motorcade of dozens of vehicles accompanied him out of the airport compound, which recently came under rocket fire from militia groups.
Most of the people along the roads and even some in the presidential palace did not wear masks, despite the risk of coronavirus.
As Francis and the president walked together, the 84-year-old Pope limped noticeably, indicating that his sciatica may have flared up again. The condition forced him to cancel several events earlier this year. In his speech at the palace, Francis criticised factional and foreign interests that have destabilised Iraq and the wider region and hit ordinary people the hardest.
“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,” Francis said.
Iraq’s security has improved since the defeat of Islamic State in 2017, but the country continues to be a theatre for global and regional score-settling, especially a bitter US-Iran rivalry that has played out on Iraqi soil. The US invasion of 2003, after years of international sanctions and a devastating war with Iran instigated by former leader Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, plunged Iraq into sectarian conflict and chronic mismanagement that has plagued it since.
The Pope’s whirlwind tour will take him by plane, helicopter and cars to four cities, including areas that most foreign dignitaries are unable to reach, let alone in such a short space of time. He will say Mass at a Baghdad church, travel north to Mosul, a former stronghold of Islamic State, and churches and other buildings there still bear the scars of conflict. The pontiff will also visit Ur, birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, and meet Iraq’s revered top Shia Muslim cleric, 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the southern city of Najaf.
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