Pope Francis left Rome on Friday for a historic trip to Iraq, his first abroad since the coronavirus pandemic began, according to an AFP reporter aboard his plane.
The 84-year-old, who said he was making the first-ever papal visit to Iraq as a “pilgrim of peace,” will also reach out to Shiite Muslims when he meets Iraq’s top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
Shortly before leaving for the airport, Pope Francis met 12 Iraqi refugees from the Community of Sant'Egidio and Auxilium Cooperative, two Catholic NGOs for 15 minutes.
The four-day journey is the pope’s first abroad since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which left the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics saying he felt “caged” inside the Vatican.
Security will be tight in Iraq, which has endured years of war and insurgency, is still hunting for Daesh sleeper cells, and days ago saw a barrage of rockets plow into a military base.
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.
Inside the country, he will travel more than 1,400 kilometers by plane and helicopter, flying over areas where security forces are still battling Daesh remnants.