On Friday, Pope Francis became the first pope to ever visit the country of Iraq. The pope took the opportunity to uplift members of the Christian community, and also called on people of different faiths to come together. He and his traveling group were all vaccinated from COVID-19 and the trip marks the first time the pope has traveled since the pandemic began last year.
As reported by the Associated Press, the pope’s main goal of the trip was “to encourage Iraq’s dwindling Christian population, which was violently persecuted by the Islamic State group and still faces discrimination by the Muslim majority, to stay and help rebuild the country devastated by wars and strife.”
In his welcoming address, Pope Francis told Iraqi officials, “Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as members of the same human family … will we be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave to future generations a better, more just and more humane world.”
On the first day of his visit, the pope stressed the importance of interfaith communities working together, especially religious minority groups. At a palace in Baghdad, the AP reports, “Francis said Christians and other minorities in Iraq deserve the same rights and protections as the Shiite Muslim majority.”
He said, “The religious, cultural and ethnic diversity that has been a hallmark of Iraqi society for millennia is a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to eliminate … Iraq today is called to show everyone, especially in the Middle East, that diversity, instead of giving rise to conflict, should lead to harmonious cooperation in the life of society.”
President Barham Salih is a member of the ethnic Kurdish minority in Iraq and reportedly agreed with the pope’s statements. “The East cannot be imagined without Christians,” Salih said. “The continued migration of Christians from the countries of the east will have dire consequences for the ability of the people from the same region to live together.”
According to CNN, the pope told members of the media on his papal plane, “I am happy to start trips again and this is a symbolic trip. It’s a duty … It has been a martyred land for too long.”
In a speech reported by the BBC, Pope Francis said, “May the clash of arms be silenced … may there be an end to acts of violence and extremism, factions and intolerance!”
He went on, “Iraq has suffered the disastrous effects of wars, the scourge of terrorism and sectarian conflicts often grounded in a fundamentalism incapable of accepting the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups.”
He addressed the Christian population, as well, saying, “The age-old presence of Christians in this land, and their contributions to the life of the nation, constitute a rich heritage that they wish to continue to place at the service of all.” He said that the diversity of the country was a “precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to eliminate.”
Pope Francis will not have as much time with the general population due to concerns over his security and a rise in COVID-19 cases. He plans to visit Qaraqosh, however, where Christians have reportedly gone back to since the Islamic State was defeated in 2017.