Iraq's president has welcomed the first-ever papal visit to Iraq as an opportunity to improve Christian-Muslim relations, saying Pope Francis' decision to go ahead with the tour despite the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns had "doubled" its value.
President Barham Salih spoke Friday at a meeting at the presidential palace with Francis that was attended by other top Iraqi officials shortly after the pontiff's arrival.
Salih lamented that the Middle East was facing a "crisis of coexistence" owing to regional tensions and extremism. He stressed the importance of peaceful coexistence and the preservation of Iraq's nearly 2,000-year-old Christian community.
He said "the East cannot be imagined without Christians," and that their continued migration will have "dire consequences." He expressed support for the establishment of an Abraham House for Religious Dialogue, named for the shared patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
"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.
Francis called on Iraqis to value their religious minorities and consider them a “precious resource” to protect, not an obstacle to eliminate as he opened the first-ever papal visit to Iraq with a plea for tolerance and fraternity.
Francis told Salih and other Iraqi authorities gathered at the Baghdad palace inside the heavily fortified Green Zone that no one should be considered a second-class citizen. He said Iraqis of all faiths deserve to have the same rights and protections as the Shiite Muslim majority.
He said: “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.”
Despite the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns, Francis came to Iraq to try to encourage its dwindling number of Christians, who were violently persecuted by the ISIS group and face continued discrimination by the Shiite Muslim majority. He is urging them to remain and help rebuild the country after years of war.
Iraq was home to nearly 1.5 million Christians before the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and plunged the country into chaos. Church officials say only a few hundred thousand remain, following years of instability and militant attacks.
Francis landed in the afternoon at Baghdad's International Airport, where he was greeted by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi, as well as groups showcasing Iraq's diverse folklore music and dance.
Inside the country, he will travel more than 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) by plane and helicopter, flying over areas where security forces are still battling ISIS.
For shorter trips, Francis will take an armored car on freshly paved roads lined with flowers and posters welcoming him warmly as "Baba al-Vatican".
He will address the faithful later on Friday afternoon at the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad's commercial Karrada district, where attendance has been restricted to allow for social distancing.