‘Let the guns fall silent’: Pope Francis shares message of hope on Iraq visit

Head of the Roman Catholic Church on four-day trip that takes in Iraq's historic and religious sites

Pope Francis on Friday called for an end to violence in Iraq as he arrived in the country for a historic visit.

The 84-year-old pontiff said he is making the trip, which has been planned for several years, as a "pilgrim of peace".

"Let the guns fall silent,” he said during a speech at the Presidential Palace in Baghdad.

The Pope said his trip to the "cradle of civilisation" was "long-awaited'.

“Enough violence, enough polarisation ... let us help the citizens who want to build this nation,” he said.

On the first papal trip to Iraq, the Pope urged the country to "combat [the] scourge of corruption, [and] promote justice."

He also asked the international community "not to withdraw their outstretched hand of friendship from the Iraqi people".

Iraqi President Barham Salih and his wife, Sarbagh Salih, warmly welcomed the Pope to the palace.

"Iraqis are proud of their long history of religious coexistence between the various sects," Mr Salih said.

Iraq has 14 recognised Christian sects, but two decades of back-to-back conflicts left ancient Christian communities that were once a vibrant and integral part of the landscape scattered and in ruins.

"Christians in Iraq have endured so much in the last decade. Their exodus continues, and many have left their homes and the country, which will have severe consequences for the future of the state," he said.

"We cannot have the region without any Christians," Mr Salih told a room of Iraqi officials, civil society members and the diplomatic corps

Earlier on Friday, Pope Francis arrived in Baghdad after a four-and-half-hour journey from Rome in an Alitalia Airbus 330 carrying his entourage and journalists.

Buffeted by strong winds, the pontiff descended the steps from the plane to meet Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi.

Both wore face masks and chatted as they walked the red carpet leading to a welcoming ceremony inside the airport, where musicians played a new song written specially for the Pope's arrival.

The two men were all smiles as they walked through the performance of traditional Iraqi songs and dances while flag-waving spectators lined the hall.

"We, the Iraqi people and government, look forward to welcoming His Holiness Pope Francis. Mesopotamia has always been and will remain a historic meeting place for common human values," Mr Al Kadhimi said on Twitter before the Pope's arrival.

"Welcome to the land of Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, the land of prophets and civilisations," he said.

The Pope also met with Iraq’s Christian leaders in the capital later on Friday, including at the Our Lady of Salvation church, where dozens of people were killed in a terrorist attack in 2010.

He said a prayer for those who lost their lives.

"We are gathered in this Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, hallowed by the blood of our brothers and sisters who here paid the ultimate price for their fidelity to the Lord and his church," the Pope said.

"May the memory of their sacrifice inspire us to renew our own trust in the power of the cross and it's saving message of forgiveness, reconciliation, and rebirth," he said.

The pontiff called on Iraqis to ensure they have "one prayer, one mind, one hope" to achieve unity and peace.

The death of worshippers is a "powerful reminder that inciting war, hateful attitudes, violence, or the shedding of blood are incompatible with authentic religious teachings", he said.

The Pope then led a prayer with Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans and head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, before leaving. The convoy then made a brief stop at the Vatican embassy in the capital.

 

On Saturday morning, the Pope will visit Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the Shiite leader in Iraq, in the city of Najaf and later attend an interreligious meeting at the ancient site of Ur.

He will visit the north of the country on Sunday, celebrating Mass in Erbil and saying prayers in Mosul, before departing on March 8.

There will be a farewell ceremony in Baghdad before the Pope leaves for Rome.

Christians in Iraq trace their roots back to the beginning of the faith. But after the US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the rise of violence that resulted in civil war, the size of the community has decreased tremendously.

An estimated million Christians left Iraq in the past decade.

It is difficult to know the exact number of Christians still living in the country after years of war and conflict in which many were either killed or had to flee to other countries.

There are about 500,000 Christians left in Iraq, Cardinal Sako  told The National. At one point, Christians represented 20 per cent of the Iraqi population, but the proportion dropped to 10 per cent and is now a mere 2 per cent, he said.

Iraqis are hoping the Pope’s visit will encourage Iraqi Christians to return home or strengthen the will of those still there to stay in the country.

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