Pope Francis has urged Iraqis to respect the nation’s Christians and reject longstanding religious conflicts and violence.
The leader of the Roman Catholic Church arrived Friday in Baghdad on a historic trip. He is the first pope to ever visit Iraq.
During his weekend visit, the pope’s main aim is expected to be to urge the nation’s decreasing Christian population to stay in Iraq to help rebuild the war-torn country.
Pope Francis told reporters aboard his plane he was happy to be traveling again after a yearlong break because of the coronavirus crisis. He said the trip to Iraq was an important one and represented “a duty to a land tormented by many years.”
Pope Francis was met at the airport by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Hundreds of people gathered in small groups to see him being driven into Baghdad. He rode in what Iraqi security officials said was an armored black BMWi750, surrounded by numerous police vehicles.
It was believed to be the first time a bullet-proof car was used to transport Pope Francis, who often travels in an open-sided “popemobile” and is known for meeting crowds.
In a speech upon arrival, Pope Francis urged Iraqis to look beyond their differences and see each other “as members of the same human family.” Only then will it be possible “to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave future generations a better, more just and more humane world,” he said.
The 84-year-old pope wore a face mask during the flight from Rome and throughout his official visits, as did the people he met. But the masks came off when the leaders sat down to talk.
The pope’s first main event was a ceremony held at the presidential palace inside Baghdad’s heavily armed Green Zone. He told President Barham Salih and other officials that Christians and other minorities should not be considered second-class citizens in Iraq. They should be given the same rights and protections as the country’s Shiite Muslim majority.
“Iraq today is called to show everyone, especially in the Middle East, that diversity, instead of giving rise to conflict, should lead to harmonious cooperation in the life of society,” the pope said.
Salih praised Francis for coming to visit even as the pandemic continues and with security concerns. “The East cannot be imagined without Christians,” Salih said.
Christians once made up a sizeable minority in Iraq, with an estimated 1.4 million. But the numbers began to fall after the 2003 United States-led invasion that removed Saddam Hussein from power. The conflict opened a wave of unrest during which Islamic militants repeatedly targeted Christians.
The Christian population was reduced further in 2014, when Islamic State militants spread across northern Iraq, including traditionally Christian towns. Less than 300,000 Christians are believed to remain in the country.
Later Friday, Pope Francis prayed at the Baghdad church that was the site of one of the worst massacres of Christians, an attack in 2010 by Islamic militants that left 58 people dead.
On Sunday, he will honor the dead in a Mosul square surrounded by destroyed churches. He will also meet with the small Christian community that returned to Qaraqosh, home to a church that was used as a shooting range by the Islamic State.
The pope is also set to visit the city Ur, birthplace of the prophet Abraham, who is honored by Christians, Muslims and Jews. He will also meet with Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
I’m Bryan Lynn.
The Associated Press and Reuters reported on this story. Bryan Lynn adapted the reports for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.
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Words in This Story
torment – v. to make someone suffer or worry a lot
mask – n. a covering used to hide or disguise your face
second-class – adj. less important than other people
diversity – n. a situation in which many different kinds of things or people are included in something
harmonious – adj. friendly and peaceful
massacre – n. an act of killing a lot of people
church – n. a building where Christians to to worship God
cleric – n. a member of the clergy: a group of people authorized to perform duties in a Christian church