Pope Francis has urged Iraqis to treat their Christian brothers as a precious resource to protect, not an “obstacle” to eliminate, as he opened the first papal visit to Iraq with a plea for tolerance and fraternity among Christians and Muslims.
Francis brushed aside the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns to resume his globe-trotting papacy after a year-long gap under Covid-19 lockdown in Vatican City.
His primary aim over the weekend is to encourage Iraq’s dwindling number of Christians, who were violently persecuted by the so-called Islamic State group and still face discrimination by the Shiite 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 will we be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave to future generations a better, more just and more humane world,” Francis told Iraqi authorities in his welcoming address.
The 84-year-old 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.
Francis was transported around Baghdad in what Iraqi security officials said was an armoured black BMW, flanked by rows of police on siren-blaring motorcycles. It was believed to be the first time Francis had used a bulletproof car.
Iraqis seemed keen to welcome Francis and the global attention his visit was bringing, with some lining the road to cheer his motorcade and banners and posters hanging high in central Baghdad depicting Francis with the slogan “We are all Brothers”.
In central Tahrir Square, a mock tree was erected emblazoned with the Vatican emblem, while Iraqi and Vatican flags lined empty streets.
The government is eager to show off the relative security it has achieved after years of wars and its defeat of the IS insurgency.
Francis’s first main event was a pomp-filled courtesy visit with President Barham Salih at the Baghdad palace inside the heavily fortified Green Zone.
Afterwards, Francis told Mr Salih and other Iraqi officials that Christians and other minorities should not be considered second-class citizens in Iraq but deserve to have the same rights and protections as the Shiite Muslim majority.
“The religious, cultural and ethnic diversity that has been a hallmark of Iraqi society for millennia is a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to eliminate,” he said.
“Iraq today is called to show everyone, especially in the Middle East, that diversity, instead of giving rise to conflict, should lead to harmonious co-operation in the life of society.”
Mr Salih echoed his call and praised Francis for coming to make it in person in Iraq despite the pandemic and security concerns.
“The East cannot be imagined without Christians,” he said. “The continued migration of Christians from the countries of the east will have dire consequences for the ability of the people from the same region to live together.”
Christians once constituted a sizeable minority in Iraq, estimated at around 1.4 million, but their numbers began to fall after the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein opened a wave of instability in which militants repeatedly targeted Christians.
They received a further blow when IS militants in 2014 swept through northern Iraq, including traditionally Christian towns across the Nineveh plains, some of which date from the time of Christ.
Their extremist version of Islam forced residents to flee to the neighbouring Kurdish region or further afield.
Few have returned — estimates suggest there are fewer than 300,000 Christians still in Iraq and many of those remain displaced from their homes.