Pope Francis has arrived in Iraq "for the most difficult and most important journey of his pontificate" according to Vatican News as he seeks to strengthen severely emasculated Christian, while preaching a reonciliatory message in the overwhelmingly Muslim country.
In one of his first messages the Pope met with bishops, clergy and religious in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad.
There he stressed the importance of sowing seeds of reconciliation and fraternal coexistence that can lead to a rebirth of hope for everyone.
In that cathedral a little more than a decade ago, attackers in suicide vests attacked poeple in the church with grenades and bullets.
At least 58 people were killed in the assault, which was carried out by an affiliate of the Al Qaeda which commits acts of terrorism in the name of Islam.
"What must never be locked down or reduced, however, is our apostolic zeal, drawn in your case from ancient roots, from the unbroken presence of the Church in these lands since earliest times," said Francis.
"Let us remember our brothers and sisters who have paid the extreme price for their fidelity to the Lord. May their sacrifice inspire us to renew our trust in the strength of the Cross and its saving message of forgiveness, reconciliation and rebirth.
"Only if we succeed in regarding each other, with our differences, as members of the same human family, can we begin an effective process of reconstruction and leave a better, more just and more human world to the future generations."
Once a rich tapestry of faiths, Iraq has been hollowed out as orthodoxies hardened. Its Jews are almost completely gone, and its Christian community grows smaller every year.
"About one million have fled since the 2003 United States-led invasion. An estimated 500,000 remain," The New York Times reported.
The Pope's arrival in Iraq for his historic weekend visit carries both symbolism and risk as he imparts a message of inter-faith tolerance, Sky News reported.
"I am happy to start trips again and this is a symbolic trip. It's a duty," the Pope told journalists traveling with him on the papal plane, CNN reported. "It has been a martyred land for too long.
Pope Francis and his entourage have all been vaccinated against COVID-19.
On the agenda: Expressing his closeness to Christians, support for the reconstruction of a nation devastated by war and terrorism, and reaching out to Muslims.
"Iraqi Christians had been waiting for the Pope for 20 years. It was in 1999 when St. John Paul II planned a short but significant pilgrimage to Ur of the Chaldees, the first stage of the Jubilee journey to the places of salvation.
ABRHAM THE COMMON FATHER
"He wanted to start with Abraham, the common father recognized by Jews, Christians and Muslims."
Francis is the first head of the Roman Catholic Church to visit Iraq. Brushing aside coronavirus concerns, he sought to rally the country's fading Christian community, calling for the protection of minorities, The New York Times reported.
The pontiff will spend four days in Iraq in what is his first foreign trip in more than a year and the first-ever papal pilgrimage to the war-hit nation.
Francis wore a facemask during the flight and took it off before descending the stairs to the tarmac and was greeted by two masked children in traditional dress, according to Sky News.
After descending along a red carpet at Baghdad International Airport the Pope was greeted by prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi while a largely unmasked choir sang songs.
"I come as a pilgrim of peace," Francis said.
Francis's four-day visit is his first international trip since the start of the pandemic and marks a return to his "globe-trotting diplomacy" — especially to minority-Christian countries — that had been his hallmark, The Washington Post reported.
Some have questioned why he is choosing to make the trip now, given the multitude of threats.
Militias are competing for power and launching rocket attacks. Althought beaten, the Islamic State is not fully eliminated. And COVID-19 cases have leapt over the past month, triggering the imposition of a curfew and other restrictions, including on religious gatherings by the Iraq government.
"But in choosing to travel in the face of the risks, to a country known foremost for its war scars and suffering, Francis has reassembled some of the ingredients that years earlier made his papacy feel so novel," the Washington Post commented.
"He is traveling at a time when other global figures are staying put, aiming to play a hand in the reconstruction of a country where decades of efforts have failed. His trip amounts to a show of encouragement for a nation trying to recover from the chaos of a U.S.-led invasion and the brutality of the Islamic State, a group that once vowed to 'conquer Rome.'"