Pope arrives in Iraq for first international trip since the start of the pandemic

  • Video report by ITV News Senior International Correspondent John Irvine

The Pope has arrived in Iraq for his first international trip since the start of the pandemic - the first time he has visited the country.

Pope Francis is visiting to create dialogue between the Iraq’s religious groups and to reassure Iraq’s Christian communities to stay and help rebuild the war-ravaged nation.

The Pope will spend three full days in Iraq before flying back to Rome on Monday.

Mural of Pope Francis on a wall put up by Iraqi security forces in preparation for the Pope's visit to a Baghdad church Credit: AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed

Pope Francis, who received the Pfizer vaccine in January, will meet religious and political leaders during his visit. He will also visit important religious sites and areas that have been devastated by war and ISIS occupation.

The trip comes despite the fact Covid cases have tripled in Iraq since January, with the 84-year-old saying he felt “duty-bound” to visit.  

Pope Francis travelled with an entourage on an Alitalia flight and wore a mask for the duration of the journey. Those travelling with him have also been vaccinated.

The Vatican and Iraqi authorities say they will enforce social distancing, crowd control and other healthcare measures. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said the Pope was visiting Iraq as an “act of love”.

A gust of wind catches the pontiff's mantle as he arrived in Iraq. Credit: AP

In a video message to the people of Iraq before his visit, Pope Francis said he was coming as a “pilgrim of peace” and described the Muslims, Jews and Christians of Iraq as “one family”.

Before returning to the Vatican on Monday, the Pope will meet 90-year-old Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s influential and revered Shia cleric.

He will also visit Mosul and lead Mass at a church in Baghdad. Pope Francis is also scheduled to hold Mass at a stadium in Irbil, which thousands of people may attend.

Iraqi security forces stand guard by a mural depicting Pope Francis Credit: Khalid Mohammed/AP

As well as Covid concerns, there are also security fears. The Pope’s visit comes after ten rockets hit a base hosting US-led coalition forces in western Iraq on Wednesday. About 10,000 Iraqi security personal have been assigned to protect Pope Francis and hisentourage.

In January, the Pontiff urged people to get vaccinated to not "gamble with the lives of others". In another January message, he condemned people who had gone abroad on holiday to escape lockdowns, saying they needed to show greater awareness of other people's suffering.