Pope Francis wrapped up the first papal visit to Iraq that brought together Muslim, Christian, Yazidi and Mandaean leaders and included a meeting with powerful Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani.

A handout picture released by the Vatican media office shows Iraq's President Barham Saleh (C) and his wife Sarbagh (L) bidding farewell to Pope Francis (R) during the farewell ceremony at the conclusion of the pontiff's visit to Iraq, on March 8, 2021.
A handout picture released by the Vatican media office shows Iraq's President Barham Saleh (C) and his wife Sarbagh (L) bidding farewell to Pope Francis (R) during the farewell ceremony at the conclusion of the pontiff's visit to Iraq, on March 8, 2021. (AFP)

Pope Francis has returned to Rome following his trip to Iraq, the first ever by a pontiff, according to an AFP reporter on board his plane.

The 84-year-old's packed three-day visit passed off without a hitch despite concerns about security and the coronavirus pandemic.

"Iraq will always remain with me, in my heart," the pope said as he concluded his largest Mass and final public event in Iraq on Sunday in Erbil, the capital of the northern Kurdistan region.

He later met the father of Alan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian Kurdish toddler who became a symbol of the plight of migrants.

It capped off a trip in which Francis covered more than 1,400 kilometres (900 miles) inside the conflict-ravaged country.

As the pope's plane took off, Iraqi President Barham Salih was at hand on the tarmac, waving goodbye.

At every turn of his trip, Francis urged Iraqis to embrace diversity, from Najaf in the south, where he held a historic face-to-face meeting with powerful Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to Nineveh to the north, where he met with Christian victims of the Daesh's terror and heard their testimonies of survival.

Unprecedented visit

In Iraq's south, Francis convened a meeting of Iraqi religious leaders in the deserts near a symbol of the country’s ancient past, the 6,000-year-old ziggurat in the Plains of Ur, also thought to be the birthplace of Abraham, the biblical patriarch revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims.

The gathering brought religious representatives across the country rarely seen together, from Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and Mandaeans. The joint appearance by figures from across Iraq’s sectarian spectrum was almost unheard-of, given their communities’ often bitter divisions.

The pope called on them to work together and make peace.

In the city of Najaf, Francis held a private meeting with the notoriously reclusive al-Sistani, among the most influential and revered Shia clerics, and together they delivered a powerful message of peaceful coexistence and affirmed the rights of Iraqi Christians.

It was a powerful message the Vatican hopes can preserve the place of the thinning Christian population in the tapestry.

In the northern city of Mosul, once at the heart of the Daesh militants' so-called “caliphate” and still devastated years after the group's onslaught, Francis prayed in a square containing the remnants of four churches, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox and Chaldean, nearly destroyed in the war to oust Daesh from the city.

Later, in the Christian town of Qaraqosh, where an entire Christian community was forced out by the brutality of militants, Francis urged Christians to forgive their oppressors and rebuild their lives.

People gathered in crowds to catch a glimpse of the pope wherever he went, fueling coronavirus concerns.

READ MORE: Pope Francis celebrates largest mass of his Iraq visit

Source: TRTWorld and agencies