— Baghdad — Pope Francis touched down in Baghdad today, sealing his place in history as the first Roman Pontiff to visit Iraq.
Iraqis had to watch the event on TV because Baghdad Airport and its main highway was on lockdown and lined with heavily armed SWAT teams under heightened security fears.
The Pope was greeted at the airport by Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Khadhimi, who’ll enjoy a brief, but much needed, personal boost from the papal visit after more than a year of deadly protests over government corruption, unemployment and non-existent public services.
Then on to the Presidential Palace – one of Saddam’s former mansions – in the heavily fortified Green Zone for a meeting with Iraq’s President Barham Saleh. The Pope met Saleh in January last year in a private audience in the Vatican when they discussed the historical importance of preserving the presence of Christians in Iraq.
This afternoon, local time, the Pope pays an emotional visit to Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral in the Karada district, rebuilt following a 2010 terror attack by Al Qaeda suicide bombers which, after Iraqi commandos also stormed the building, left 58 dead and scores of people injured.
That atrocity in 2010 was among the chief catalysts that led to the exodus of hundreds of Christian families quitting the capital for good and seeking sanctuary in the Kurdish north or joining relatives already overseas.
“It’s indescribable,” said one worshipper, 53-year-old Martin Scekes, who survived the bombing and decided to stay. Mr. Scekes told the Catholic Herald: “The Pope coming to see us will lift our hearts.”
On Saturday the Pope flies down to the holy Shia city of Najaf for a potentially history making meeting with Ayatollah Ali Sistani to develop Catholic dialogue with Islam. The 90-year-old Sistani lives modestly in rented accommodation close to the Iman Ali shrine, and the meeting will be behind closed doors.
Fraternity among believers of different religions will also be the theme of a gathering afterwards at the ancient settlement at Ur in the south of Iraq, thought to be the birthplace of Abraham, claimed as “father in faith” by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Throughout his visit security around the Pope will be extraordinary in a country ravaged by decades of war and terrorism.
Iraq’s Interior Ministry and the Iraq Army have set up a ring of steel around the Pope where ever he travels during his four day, whirlwind tour, meanwhile the Iraqi Air Force will operate 24-hour drones to keep watch from the skies.
Unusually for the Pope, he’s expected to travel in the road sections of his trip in an armoured car. The Popemobile remains in Rome this time.
Explosives teams and counter-terrorism forces are on standby and Iraq’s Mukabarat, while intelligence squads can shut down suspicious phone calls or social media posts.
“It’s indescribable,” said 53-year-old Martin Scekes, who told the Catholic Herald: “The Pope coming to see us will lift our hearts.”
The Catholic Herald understands from an Iraqi Minister that the Government has assured the Vatican it can provide adequate protection for the Pope and his entourage.
Meanwhile, buildings have been given a new lick of paint and fresh flowers have sprouted overnight at churches Pope Francis will visit.
Billboards and banners depicting Francis have been draped on buildings and street lamps, and fresh Iraqi and Vatican flags fly in every venue the Pope will visit – as Iraqis give the pontiff a Mesopotamian welcome.