Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi (R) welcomes Pope Francis at Baghdad International Airport's VIP Lounge, on March 5, 2021. Pope Francis landed in war-battered Iraq today on the first-ever papal visit, defying security fears and the pandemic to comfort one of the world's oldest and most persecuted Christian communities. (Ayman HENNA / AFP)
To consolidate peace and ensure progress, the government and people of Iraq must never treat anyone as a second-class citizen and must work each day to promote harmony, Pope Francis said."Fraternal coexistence calls for patient and honest dialogue, protected by justice and by respect for law," he said March 5, addressing Iraqi President Barham Salih, other government leaders and diplomats serving in Iraq.The appointment with civic and cultural leaders at the presidential palace in Baghdad came shortly after the pope landed in Iraq for his first foreign trip in 15 months because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although he, his entire entourage and the journalists traveling with him had all been vaccinated against the coronavirus, they all wore masks during the four-hour flight from Rome.Lowering his mask briefly to address reporters, he said he felt a "duty" to visit the Middle Eastern country, which had experienced so much death and turmoil since the 2003 invasion by a U.S.-led coalition. He put his mask back on to make his way around the plane and personally greet each member of the media.The pope held a brief meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in a lounge at the Baghdad airport before heading into the city under tight security.Outside the airport, in five or six large groups along the highway, hundreds of Iraqis waved Vatican or Iraqi flags as the pope passed. Forced to use a bullet-proof car, the pope rode to the presidential palace in a black BMW 750i; the sedan was flanked most of the way by security officials on motorcycles, but as the motorcade neared the palace, it was accompanied by officers on horseback.The president welcomed Pope Francis as a "great and dear guest," expressing his gratitude that the pope made the trip "despite recommendations to postpone the visit because of the exceptional circumstances the world is going through because of the pandemic and despite the difficult conditions that our wounded nation is going through" with sporadic waves of violence.Facing those dangers and visiting anyway "in reality doubles the value of your visit in the eyes of Iraqis," the president told the pope.In his first speech of the trip, the pope outlined the themes expected to resonate throughout the March 5-8 visit: paying homage to the Christians martyred by Islamic militants over the past 20 years; insisting on belief in one God, the father of all, means all people are brothers and sisters; encouraging a continued commitment to rebuilding the physical and social fabric of the country, including with international aid; and condemning all recourse to violence.