An emotional farewell: Pope Francis departs Iraq after landmark visit

The whirlwind visit saw the pontiff travel to five provinces in four days

Pope Francis's aircraft left  Baghdad for Rome on Monday morning, following a historic four-day visit to Iraq.

A key aim of the trip – the first by a pontiff to Iraq – was to encourage Christians to stay in the country.

Arriving for his flight home at Baghdad International Airport, the Pope was greeted by Iraqi President Barham Salih and first lady Sarbagh Salih.

"Bidding farewell to His Holiness Pope Francis, our honoured guest who visited Baghdad, Najaf, Ur, Erbil, Nineveh," Mr Salih said.

"His message of peace, human solidarity with Iraq inspires us to persevere toward a better future for the people of Iraq and the wider region,"

As the Pope's Alitalia Airbus A330 aircraft took off, Mr Salih and other government officials were at hand on the tarmac to wave goodbye.

The Pope's departure coincided with International Women's Day, and shortly after take-off the pontiff thanked Iraqi women for their courage and resilience.

"I would like to say a heartfelt thank you to all the women, especially the women of Iraq, courageous women who continue to give life, in spite of wrongs and hurt," he wrote on Twitter.

"May women be respected and protected! May they be shown respect and provided with opportunities!"

During his time in Iraq, Pope Francis travelled to five provinces in four days and held two Masses and prayers for victims of war.

“Iraq will always remain with me in my heart,” the Pope told a congregation in the northern city of Erbil.

The visit was a chance for the world to see Iraq in a new light away from the violence and conflict.

On Sunday, the pontiff travelled to the north of the country to encourage the dwindling number of Iraqi Christians to stay.

Many had been forced to flee when ISIS extremists seized vast areas of territory in 2014.

At each stop in northern Iraq, the remnants of its Christian population turned out to greet the Pope.

From the southern holy city of Najaf, where he held a landmark meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, to Nineveh in the north where he spoke in the ruins of west Mosul, Pope Francis called for unity and diversity.

He urged Iraqis to forgive and turn a new page, after meeting with Christian victims of ISIS terror and hearing their testimonies of survival.

Pope Francis ended the visit with an open-air Mass at the Franso Hariri Stadium – which is named after an Iraqi Christian politician assassinated by extremists 20 years ago – that attracted nearly 10,000 people.

Security was tight and most events were strictly controlled, with the Pope's vehicle and entourage flanked by Vatican security guards and elite Iraqi counter-terrorism services.

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