Pope Francis calls for an end to violence and extremism

Saturday, 06 March 2021 - 8:46

Pope Francis has called for an end to violence and extremism, on the first ever papal visit to Iraq.

Covid and security fears have made this his riskiest visit yet, but the 84-year-old insisted he was "duty bound".

"Holy Father, we are healing our wounds, and here you are, healing our wounds with us," said President Salih in an impassioned speech on Friday at a meeting with the Pope.

The Pope said he has come to Iraq as a "pilgrim."

"I come as a penitent, asking forgiveness of heaven and my brothers and sisters for so much destruction and cruelty," said the pontiff during a speech on Friday. "I come as a pilgrim of peace in the name of Christ, the Prince of Peace. How much we have prayed in these years for peace in Iraq."

He also said Iraq's dwindling Christian community should have a more prominent role as citizens with full rights, freedoms and responsibilities.

He is hoping to foster inter-religious dialogue - meeting Iraq's most revered Shia Muslim cleric - and will celebrate Mass at a stadium in Irbil in the north.

About 10,000 Iraqi Security Forces personnel are being deployed to protect the Pope, while round-the-clock curfews are also being imposed to limit the spread of Covid.

Iraq's PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi greeted him at the airport, with a red carpet, Iraqis in national dress and songs from a largely unmasked choir.

Pope Francis was widely expected to cancel the visit after a surge in coronavirus cases gripped Iraq in recent weeks, and a spate of new rocket attacks deepened security fears. But the Pope insisted that the visit go on as scheduled, referring to Iraq's ancient Christian community as "that martyred Church."

"For some time I have wanted to meet that people who suffered so much, Francis said on Wednesday. "The people of Iraq are waiting for us. They were waiting for St. Pope John Paul II, who was not allowed to go," he added, referring to a planned trip in 2000 which was canceled after a breakdown in talks between the Vatican and then President Saddam Hussein.

Iraqi authorities have been busy preparing for the papal visit, cleaning streets and re-paving others where the Vatican delegation is scheduled to go. New street lamps light the roads and many previously broken traffic lights are back in commission.

 "The streets of Baghdad have become a lot better within a week," said 41-year-old shopkeeper Ahmad al-Assadi. "I wish he would stay for a month and tour all of Iraq ... maybe then they can fix the entire country."