Pope Francis to visit Iraq in March next year

He will become the first pontiff to visit the war-torn country in a trip that includes stops in Baghdad, Erbil and Mosul

The Vatican on Monday said Pope Francis will visit Iraq next year, as Baghdad welcomed the development.

It will be the pontiff's first trip abroad since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

It will also make him the first pope to visit the war-torn country.

He is scheduled to visit five places, including Baghdad, Erbil and Mosul between March 5-8, the Vatican said.

"The programme of the journey will be made known in due course, and will take into consideration the evolution of the worldwide health emergency," spokesman Matteo Bruni said.

Pope Francis, 84, has long expressed his desire to visit Iraq, said the Vatican.

“I think constantly of Iraq – where I want to go next year – in the hope that it can face the future through the peaceful and shared pursuit of the common good on the part of all elements of society, including the religious, and not fall back into hostilities sparked by the simmering conflicts of the regional powers," the Pope said earlier this year.

Iraq's Foreign Ministry welcomed the announcement by the Vatican, and said it would be a "historic visit".

"The visit represents a message of peace to Iraq and the entire region, it affirms unity in confronting extremism and promotes diversity and tolerance," the ministry said.

Iraqi President Barham Salih hailed the announcement.

"The journey by Pope Francis to Mesopotamia – cradle of civilisation, birthplace of Abraham, father of the faithful – will be a message of peace to Iraqis of all religions and serve to affirm our common values of justice and dignity," Mr Salih said on Twitter.

Iraq is traditionally home to many different Eastern Rite churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, and their presence was once a sign of Iraq’s ethnic and religious diversity.

The country was once home to millions of Christians but only a few hundred thousand remain following the outbreak of sectarian violence after the 2003 US-led invasion and the rise of ISIS.

In 2000, the late Pope John Paul II wanted to visit the ancient Iraqi city of Ur, believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, the father of all three of the great monotheistic religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

It would have been the first stop of a three-step pilgrimage to Iraq, Egypt and Israel.

But negotiations with the government of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein broke down and he was unable to go.