"May there be an end to acts of violence and extremism, factions and intolerance," the pope says on Friday in his first speech upon arrival to the war-torn Iraq.

Pope Francis is received by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi upon disembarking from his plane at Baghdad International Airport to start his historic tour in Baghdad, Iraq, on March 5, 2021.
Pope Francis is received by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi upon disembarking from his plane at Baghdad International Airport to start his historic tour in Baghdad, Iraq, on March 5, 2021. (Reuters)

Pope Francis has called for an end to extremism and violence in his opening address on the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, long scarred by war and now gripped by coronavirus.

The 84-year-old is defying a second wave of the global pandemic and renewed security fears to make a "long-awaited" trip to comfort one of the world's oldest Christian communities, while also deepening his dialogue with Muslims.

"May there be an end to acts of violence and extremism, factions and intolerance!" urged Francis in the stirring address, his first after arriving in Iraq on Friday.

Francis landed in the afternoon at Baghdad's International Airport, where he was greeted by Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi, as well as groups showcasing Iraq's diverse folklore music and dance.

He then met with President Barham Saleh, who had extended the official invitation to the pontiff in 2019, as well as other government and religious figures.

Pope Francis urged Iraqi officials to "combat the scourge of corruption, misuse of power and disregard for law," in a country consistently ranked one of the most graft-tainted by Transparency International.

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Historic trip

The Pope, a prominent promoter of interfaith dialogue, also hailed other devastated Iraqi minorities.

"Here, among so many who have suffered, my thoughts turn to the Yazidis, innocent victims of senseless and brutal atrocities," he said.

Just like Iraq's Christian population, the esoteric Yazidi community was ravaged in 2014 by the Daesh group's sweep over much of northern Iraq.

The trip is the pontiff's first travel abroad since the coronavirus pandemic, which had left him feeling "caged" in Vatican City, and it has been hailed as a bold choice.

Iraq endured decades of war, is still hunting for Deash cells and is now facing a second spike of Covid-19 infections, with more than 5,000 new cases and dozens of deaths daily.

Authorities have imposed a full lockdown through the papal trip, which means Francis will not be greeted by massive crowds of believers like on other foreign trips.

The Pope has been vaccinated and was seen taking off his mask on Friday to speak with officials and religious figures in Baghdad, just days after Iraq launched its modest inoculation campaign.

"I'll try to follow directions and not shake hands with everyone, but I don't want to stay too far," Francis said ahead of his arrival.

He was also seen walking with a slight limp, likely a result of a painful bout of sciatica that he has suffered this year.

Inside the country, he will travel more than 1,400 kilometres (870 miles) by plane and helicopter, flying over areas where security forces are still battling Daesh terror group.

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Members of the Iraqi special forces stand guard outside the Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Deliverance in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, on March 4, 2021.
Members of the Iraqi special forces stand guard outside the Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Deliverance in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, on March 4, 2021. (AFP)

'Baba Al Vatican'

Francis will preside over a half-dozen services in ravaged churches, refurbished stadiums and remote desert locations, where attendance will be limited to allow for social distancing.

He will also reach out to Muslims when he meets Iraq's top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

For shorter trips, Francis will take an armoured car on freshly paved roads that will be lined with flowers and posters welcoming the leader known here as "Baba Al Vatican".

The pope's visit has deeply touched Iraq's Christians, whose numbers have collapsed over years of persecution and sectarian violence, from 1.5 million in 2003 to fewer than 400,000 today.

"We're hoping the pope will explain to the government that it needs to help its people," a Christian from Iraq's north, Saad Al Rassam, told AFP news agency.

"We have suffered so much, we need the support."

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'We left everything – except our faith'

The first day of the pope's ambitious itinerary will see him meet government officials and clerics in the capital Baghdad, including at the Our Lady of Salvation church, where a militant attack left dozens dead in 2010.

He will also visit the northern province of Nineveh, where in 2014 Daesh terrorists forced minorities to either flee, convert to Islam or be put to death.

"People had only a few minutes to decide if they wanted to leave or be decapitated," recalled Karam Qacha, a Chaldean Catholic priest in Nineveh.

"We left everything – except our faith."

Some 100,000 Christians – around half of those who lived in the province – fled, of whom just 36,000 have returned, according to Catholic charity "Aid to the Church in Need".

Among the returnees, a third have said they want to leave again in coming years, dismayed by Iraq's rampant corruption, persecution and poverty, which now affects 40 percent of the population.

The exodus is a loss for all of Iraq, said Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, who heads the Vatican's Congregation for the Oriental Churches and will accompany the pope to Iraq.

"A Middle East without Christians is like trying to make bread with flour, but no yeast or salt," he said.

The visit aims not only to encourage Christians to stay in their homeland, but even prompt some emigres to return from nearby Lebanon and Jordan, or further afield like Canada and Australia.

In a video address ahead of the trip, Francis evoked "the wounds of loved ones left behind and homes abandoned," saying there had been "too many martyrs" in Iraq.

"I come as a pilgrim, a penitent pilgrim to implore forgiveness and reconciliation from the Lord after years of war and terrorism."

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'Historic encounter, between minarets and church bells'

The pope has insisted on the visit despite resurgent violence.

Rocket attacks across the country have left three people dead in recent weeks, including a US contractor who died Wednesday.

Francis' determination to travel to areas long shunned by foreign dignitaries has impressed many in Iraq – as has his planned meeting with Sistani, 90, the top authority for Iraq's Shias.

A highly reclusive figure who rarely accepts visitors, Sistani will make an exception to host Francis at his humble home in the shrine city of Najaf on Saturday.

Banners all over Najaf have celebrated "the historic encounter, between the minarets and the church bells".

Francis will afterwards head to the desert site of Ur, where Abraham is thought to have been born.

There, he will host an interfaith service that will bring together not only the Abrahamic religions but also include followers of other beliefs, including Yazidis and Sabeans.

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies