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Pope Francis landed in northern Iraq on Sunday to cap his historic tour to the country with a visit to Christian communities that endured the brutality of a jihadist ‘caliphate’.
The heaviest deployment of security forces yet has been mobilised to protect the 84-year-old on what is perhaps his riskiest day in Iraq.
Francis landed early on Sunday at the airport in the Kurdish regional capital of Arbil, targeted just a few weeks ago by a volley of rockets that killed two people.
He held a brief meeting with regional president Nechirvan Barzani and his cousin, the prime minister Masrour Barzani.
The pontiff will then travel by helicopter to lead a prayer ‘for the victims of the war’ in the city of Mosul, an ancient crossroads overrun by the Islamic State group in 2014.
‘We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion,’ Francis said at an interfaith service Saturday, one of the many stops on the first-ever papal visit to the war-scarred country.
Pope Francis’ trip to Iraq as a ‘pilgrim of peace’ aims to reassure the country’s ancient, but dwindling, Christian community and to expand his dialogue with other religions.
The leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics on Saturday met Iraq’s top Shiite Muslim cleric, the reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who agreed that Iraq’s Christians should be able to live in ‘peace’.
‘We all hope that this visit will be a good omen for the Iraqi people,’ Adnane Youssef, a Christian from northern Iraq, told AFP. ‘We hope that it will lead to better days.’
The Christian community of Iraq has shrunk from 1.5 million before the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein to only 400,000 now, about one percent of the 40 million living in the Muslim-majority country.
Most of them had been living in the vast plains of the northern Nineveh province — which IS set in its sights in 2014.
Watching the horrors from afar at the time, Pope Francis said he was ready to come meet the displaced and other victims of war in a show of solidarity.
Seven years later, he will see for himself the devastated Old City of Mosul and the painstaking efforts to rebuild it.
He will then travel east to Qaraqosh, one of Iraq’s oldest Christian towns whose residents still speak a dialect of the language spoken by Jesus Christ.
It, too, was largely destroyed in 2014 when IS rampaged through the area, but its residents have trickled back since 2017 and slowly worked at rebuilding their hometown.
AFRICA DAILY NEWS, NEW YORK