Pope Francis heads to Iraq on Friday to urge the country’s dwindling number of Christians to stay put and help rebuild the country after years of war and persecution, brushing aside the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns to make the first-ever papal visit to the country. Iraqis were keen to welcome him and the global attention his visit will bring, with banners and posters hanging high in central Baghdad, and billboards depicting Francis with the slogan “We are all Brothers” decorating the main thoroughfare. In central Tahrir square, a mock tree was erected emblazoned with the Vatican emblem, while Iraqi and Vatican flags lined empty streets, the AP reports
Francis is breaking his year-long COVID-19 lockdown to refocus the world’s attention on a largely neglected people whose northern Christian communities, which date from the time of Christ, were largely emptied during the violent Islamic State reign in the area from 2014-2017. "The Pope’s visit is to support the Christians in Iraq to stay, and to say that they are not forgotten," the Chaldean patriarch, Cardinal Luis Sako, told reporters in Baghdad this week. Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said Iraqis were eager to welcome Francis’ "message of peace and tolerance” and described the visit as a historic meeting between the "minaret and the bells." Among the highlights of the three-day visit is Francis' private meeting Saturday with the country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
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