Unprecedented, Pope travels to Iraq

BAGHDAD (AP) — Pope Francis opened the first-ever papal visit to Iraq on Friday with a plea for the country to protect its centuries-old diversity, urging Muslims to embrace their Christian neighbors as a precious resource and asking the embattled Christian community — “though small like a mustard seed” — to persevere.

Francis brushed aside the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns to resume his globe-trotting papacy after a yearlong hiatus spent under COVID-19 lockdown in Vatican City. His primary aim over the weekend is to encourage Iraq’s dwindling Christian population, which was violently persecuted by the Islamic State group and still faces discrimination by the Muslim majority, to stay and help rebuild the country devastated by wars and strife.

“Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as members of the same human family,” Francis told Iraqi authorities in his welcoming address, “will we be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave to future generations a better, more just and more humane world.”

The 84-year-old pope donned a facemask during the flight from Rome and throughout all his protocol visits, as did his hosts. But the masks came off when the leaders sat down to talk, and social distancing and other health measures appeared lax at the airport and on the streets of Baghdad, despite the country’s worsening COVID-19 outbreak.

The government is eager to show off the relative stability it has achieved after the defeat of the IS “caliphate.” Nonetheless, security measures were tight.

Francis, who relishes plunging into crowds and likes to travel in an open-sided popemobile, was transported around Baghdad in an armored black BMWi750, flanked by rows of motorcycle police. It was believed to be the first time Francis had used a bulletproof car — both to protect him and keep crowds from forming.

Iraqis, though, seemed keen to welcome Francis and the global attention his visit brought. Some lined the road to cheer his motorcade. Banners and posters in central Baghdad depicted Francis with the slogan “We are all Brothers.”

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