Pope Francis wears a face mask during ceremony in Rome
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The 84-year-old will begin a planned three-day trip to Iraq on Friday despite scenes of violence on the streets of Baghdad in recent weeks. The head of the Catholic Church will become the first-ever pope to visit the country and will be accompanied by an entourage of 10,000 security personnel. Vatican officials had privately urged him against the trip due to security concerns but he could not be dissuaded.
Pope Francis said it was important to make the trip even if minority Christians in Iraq only saw him on TV.
Speaking last month ahead of the visit, he said: “They will see the Pope is there in their country.
“I am the pastor of people who are suffering.”
Iraq has been at the centre of warfare in the Middle East for over two decades.
Iraq has also struggled to contain the outbreak of coronavirus with over 600,000 confirmed cases and more than 13,000 fatalities.
The Pope will begin his first foreign visit since the end of 2019 in Baghdad.
The capital has been at the centre of increased violence and last Monday rockets hit Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone – the location of government buildings and foreign embassies.
In January, a double suicide attack killed at least 32 people in Baghdad.
A church leader stressed the pontiff is aware of the dangers but insisted it important to spread peace across the region.
Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil said: “The Pope knows where he is going.
“He is deliberately coming to an area marked by war and violence to bring a message of peace.
“The authorities are taking the Pope’s security very seriously, with 10,000 security personnel deployed for the purpose.”
The Pope will also use a closed car and not a popemobile on the streets, a Vatican source said.
The Pope has not ventured outside Italy since November 2019 due to the coronavirus pandemic, and he and his entourage have all been vaccinated.
One Vatican official added: “He is itching to get back out on the road after such a long period.
“Despite some misgivings, the general mood in here is that all systems are go.”
His 33rd foreign visit in the past eight years will begin at a ceremony at the presidential palace.
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Pope Francis will be joined by the Iraqi president Barham Salih and prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
During his stay, he will meet bishops, priests and others at the city’s Syro-Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation.
Two other gatherings will be held at churches in Baghdad and will be limited to about 100 worshippers, with social distancing and masks required.
The Pope is also set to hold Mass for around 10,000 people at a stadium in the city of Erbil.
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