Pope Francis visits Iraq: Pontiff calls for ‘end to violence and extremism’ on historic visit

Pope Francis made a rousing call for peace on the first day of his historic visit to war-battered Iraq today, pleading with his hosts for an ‘end to acts of violence and extremism, factions and intolerance’. 

The 84-year-old, who defied security fears and the pandemic to become the first pontiff to travel to Iraq, urged religious faiths to ‘look beyond our differences’ in a country ravaged by ISIS that is home to one of the world’s most persecuted Christian communities.  

Delivering a message of hope to worshippers in Iraq, he paid tribute to the ‘age-old presence of Christians in this land, and their contributions to the life of the nation’. 

But he also reached out to Yazidis who were killed and tormented by ISIS, saying that ‘here, among so many who have suffered, my thoughts turn to the Yazidis, innocent victims of senseless and brutal atrocities’. 

Francis, who said he was travelling to Iraq as a ‘pilgrim of peace’ on his first foreign trip since the start of the pandemic, will also extend a hand to Shiite Muslims when he meets Iraq’s top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. 

‘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,’ he said, describing religious minorities as a ‘precious resource’ to be protected. 

He also 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 global watchdogs.   

Iraq's President Barham Salih welcomes Pope Francis during a ceremony at the presidential palace in Baghdad, where the pontiff made a rousing call for peace and urged an end to religious factionalism

Iraq's President Barham Salih welcomes Pope Francis during a ceremony at the presidential palace in Baghdad, where the pontiff made a rousing call for peace and urged an end to religious factionalism

Iraq’s President Barham Salih welcomes Pope Francis during a ceremony at the presidential palace in Baghdad, where the pontiff made a rousing call for peace and urged an end to religious factionalism 

A child gives a bouquet of flowers to Pope Francis during the official welcome ceremony at the presidential palace in Baghdad on Friday

A child gives a bouquet of flowers to Pope Francis during the official welcome ceremony at the presidential palace in Baghdad on Friday

A child gives a bouquet of flowers to Pope Francis during the official welcome ceremony at the presidential palace in Baghdad on Friday 

The papal mantle is blown into Francis's face by a gust of wind as he stands by Iraq's prime minister at Baghdad airport today

The papal mantle is blown into Francis's face by a gust of wind as he stands by Iraq's prime minister at Baghdad airport today

The papal mantle is blown into Francis’s face by a gust of wind as he stands by Iraq’s prime minister at Baghdad airport today

Pope Francis walks on a red carpet with Iraqi premier Mustafa al-Kadhimi as he arrives in Iraq on Friday for the start of a four-day visit to the country - the first ever by a pontiff

Pope Francis walks on a red carpet with Iraqi premier Mustafa al-Kadhimi as he arrives in Iraq on Friday for the start of a four-day visit to the country - the first ever by a pontiff

Pope Francis walks on a red carpet with Iraqi premier Mustafa al-Kadhimi as he arrives in Iraq on Friday for the start of a four-day visit to the country – the first ever by a pontiff

Francis meets bishops, priests, seminarians and catechists at a cathedral in Baghdad decorated with posters of him

Francis meets bishops, priests, seminarians and catechists at a cathedral in Baghdad decorated with posters of him

Francis meets bishops, priests, seminarians and catechists at a cathedral in Baghdad decorated with posters of him  

Pope Francis arrives at the Sayidat al-Nejat (Our Lady of Salvation) cathedral in Baghdad today on the first day of his historic visit to Iraq where he began with a rousing call for peace

Pope Francis arrives at the Sayidat al-Nejat (Our Lady of Salvation) cathedral in Baghdad today on the first day of his historic visit to Iraq where he began with a rousing call for peace

Pope Francis arrives at the Sayidat al-Nejat (Our Lady of Salvation) cathedral in Baghdad today on the first day of his historic visit to Iraq where he began with a rousing call for peace 

Francis gives his address at the presidential palace inside Baghdad's heavily-fortified Green Zone

Francis gives his address at the presidential palace inside Baghdad's heavily-fortified Green Zone

Francis gives his address at the presidential palace inside Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green Zone 

Francis waves as he arrives to hold his first mass in Iraq at the Our Lady of Deliverance church in Baghdad today

Francis waves as he arrives to hold his first mass in Iraq at the Our Lady of Deliverance church in Baghdad today

Francis waves as he arrives to hold his first mass in Iraq at the Our Lady of Deliverance church in Baghdad today 

Pope Francis and the President of Iraq Barham Salih attend a meeting with authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps in the hall of the Presidential palace in Baghdad

Pope Francis and the President of Iraq Barham Salih attend a meeting with authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps in the hall of the Presidential palace in Baghdad

Pope Francis and the President of Iraq Barham Salih attend a meeting with authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps in the hall of the Presidential palace in Baghdad

Pope Francis attends a meeting with authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps in the hall of the Presidential palace in Baghdad

Pope Francis attends a meeting with authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps in the hall of the Presidential palace in Baghdad

Pope Francis attends a meeting with authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps in the hall of the Presidential palace in Baghdad

Francis meets Christian clergymen, teachers and seminarians in a Syro-Catholic cathedral in Baghdad on Friday

Francis meets Christian clergymen, teachers and seminarians in a Syro-Catholic cathedral in Baghdad on Friday

Francis meets Christian clergymen, teachers and seminarians in a Syro-Catholic cathedral in Baghdad on Friday 

Francis receives an ornamental gift after his sermon at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in the Iraqi capital today

Francis receives an ornamental gift after his sermon at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in the Iraqi capital today

Francis receives an ornamental gift after his sermon at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in the Iraqi capital today 

Francis delivers his speech during a meeting with Christian clergymen at the Our Lady of Salvation cathedral in Baghdad

Francis delivers his speech during a meeting with Christian clergymen at the Our Lady of Salvation cathedral in Baghdad

Francis delivers his speech during a meeting with Christian clergymen at the Our Lady of Salvation cathedral in Baghdad 

The pope left Rome early Friday for the four-day trip, his 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.

‘I’m happy to resume travel, and this symbolic trip is also a duty to a land that has been martyred for years,’ he told journalists aboard his plane.

His plane landed at 1.55pm, flying the flags of both Vatican City and Iraq as it taxied on the tarmac at Baghdad International Airport, where Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi greeted him.

‘With love and peace, Iraq’s people and government are welcoming His Holiness Pope Francis and reaffirming the depths of this humanitarian bond,’ Kadhemi said ahead of the pope’s arrival.

Francis subsequently met Iraqi president Barham Salih and other authorities gathered at the Baghdad palace inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, telling them 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, in a country facing turmoil beset by both political violence and the effects of the pandemic. 

While Francis has been vaccinated, Iraq has been gripped by a second wave of infection with 5,000 plus new cases a day, prompting authorities to impose a full lockdown during the pontiff’s visit.

‘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. 

Francis speaks at the presidential palace on Friday where he gave a rousing call for peace following years of political strife

Francis speaks at the presidential palace on Friday where he gave a rousing call for peace following years of political strife

Francis speaks at the presidential palace on Friday where he gave a rousing call for peace following years of political strife 

Francis was met at the airport by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi (right) who delivered a greeting of 'love and peace'

Francis was met at the airport by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi (right) who delivered a greeting of 'love and peace'

Francis was met at the airport by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi (right) who delivered a greeting of ‘love and peace’

Francis waved as he and the prime minister left the airport flanked by Iraqi and Vatican flags waved by young children

Francis waved as he and the prime minister left the airport flanked by Iraqi and Vatican flags waved by young children

Francis waved as he and the prime minister left the airport flanked by Iraqi and Vatican flags waved by young children 

Armed Iraqi security personnel supervise children entering the vicinity of the cathedral where Francis was visiting on Friday

Armed Iraqi security personnel supervise children entering the vicinity of the cathedral where Francis was visiting on Friday

Armed Iraqi security personnel supervise children entering the vicinity of the cathedral where Francis was visiting on Friday 

Francis has pushed ahead with the trip despite fears for his safety amid a deteriorating security situation in Iraq which saw an American contractor die in an attack on a military base this week

Francis has pushed ahead with the trip despite fears for his safety amid a deteriorating security situation in Iraq which saw an American contractor die in an attack on a military base this week

Francis has pushed ahead with the trip despite fears for his safety amid a deteriorating security situation in Iraq which saw an American contractor die in an attack on a military base this week

Francis

Francis

Francis

Francis

Francis’s visit is the first to Iraq by a Pope, after John Paul II was forced to call off a journey in 1999 amid fears for his safety and political pressure on the Saddam regime

Francis is greeted by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi as he lands at Baghdad airport on Friday afternoon local time

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi speaks with Pope Francis after the pontiff arrived at Baghdad airport

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi speaks with Pope Francis after the pontiff arrived at Baghdad airport

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi speaks with Pope Francis after the pontiff arrived at Baghdad airport

Francis is due to spend four days in Iraq where he will visit Christian sites attacked by Islamic extremists, offer prayers for the victims of war, and meet with the country's top Shiite cleric

Francis is due to spend four days in Iraq where he will visit Christian sites attacked by Islamic extremists, offer prayers for the victims of war, and meet with the country's top Shiite cleric

Francis is due to spend four days in Iraq where he will visit Christian sites attacked by Islamic extremists, offer prayers for the victims of war, and meet with the country’s top Shiite cleric

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi welcomes Pope Francis at Baghdad Airport in a picture released on his official Twitter account on Friday

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi welcomes Pope Francis at Baghdad Airport in a picture released on his official Twitter account on Friday

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi welcomes Pope Francis at Baghdad Airport in a picture released on his official Twitter account on Friday

President Barham Salih speaks with Pope Francis after his arrival at the Presidential palace

President Barham Salih speaks with Pope Francis after his arrival at the Presidential palace

President Barham Salih speaks with Pope Francis after his arrival at the Presidential palace

Iraqi children dressed in traditional outfits join a protocol member wearing a protective mask at Baghdad airport

Iraqi children dressed in traditional outfits join a protocol member wearing a protective mask at Baghdad airport

Iraqi children dressed in traditional outfits join a protocol member wearing a protective mask at Baghdad airport

Iraqi honor guards stand in front of the presidential Palace before Pope Francis' arrival in Baghdad, Iraq

Iraqi honor guards stand in front of the presidential Palace before Pope Francis' arrival in Baghdad, Iraq

Iraqi honor guards stand in front of the presidential Palace before Pope Francis’ arrival in Baghdad, Iraq

Iraqi honour guards stand in line at the presidential palace in Baghdad as they wait for the arrival of Pope Francis

Iraqi honour guards stand in line at the presidential palace in Baghdad as they wait for the arrival of Pope Francis

Iraqi honour guards stand in line at the presidential palace in Baghdad as they wait for the arrival of Pope Francis

The plane carrying Pope Francis flies the Iraqi and Vatican City flags from its cockpit as it lands in Baghdad on Friday

The plane carrying Pope Francis flies the Iraqi and Vatican City flags from its cockpit as it lands in Baghdad on Friday

The plane carrying Pope Francis flies the Iraqi and Vatican City flags from its cockpit as it lands in Baghdad on Friday

Pope Francis attends a meeting with authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps in the hall of the Presidential palace in Baghdad

Pope Francis attends a meeting with authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps in the hall of the Presidential palace in Baghdad

Pope Francis attends a meeting with authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps in the hall of the Presidential palace in Baghdad

People attend a celebration in a public square in the predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh

People attend a celebration in a public square in the predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh

People attend a celebration in a public square in the predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh

Security will be tight in Iraq, which has endured years of war and insurgency, is still hunting for Islamic State sleeper cells, and days ago saw a barrage of rockets plough 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 870 miles by plane and helicopter, flying over areas where security forces are still battling IS remnants.

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. ‘We have suffered so much, we need the support.’ 

Francis meets people from the Scholas Occurrentes, an educational network backed by the Vatican, in Baghdad on Friday

Francis meets people from the Scholas Occurrentes, an educational network backed by the Vatican, in Baghdad on Friday

Francis meets people from the Scholas Occurrentes, an educational network backed by the Vatican, in Baghdad on Friday 

Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi (right) meeting with Pope Francis at Baghdad Airport's VIP Lounge

Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi (right) meeting with Pope Francis at Baghdad Airport's VIP Lounge

Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi (right) meeting with Pope Francis at Baghdad Airport’s VIP Lounge

A grab from the official Iraqiya TV footage shows Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi welcoming Pope Francis

A grab from the official Iraqiya TV footage shows Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi welcoming Pope Francis

A grab from the official Iraqiya TV footage shows Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi welcoming Pope Francis

Pope Francis arrives at Baghdad International Airport where a welcoming ceremony is held to start his historic tour

Pope Francis arrives at Baghdad International Airport where a welcoming ceremony is held to start his historic tour

Pope Francis arrives at Baghdad International Airport where a welcoming ceremony is held to start his historic tour

A Vatican flag was flying by the steps of the plane as Francis walked onto Iraqi soil earlier on Friday

A Vatican flag was flying by the steps of the plane as Francis walked onto Iraqi soil earlier on Friday

A Vatican flag was flying by the steps of the plane as Francis walked onto Iraqi soil earlier on Friday 

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi welcomes Pope Francis at Baghdad International Airport

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi welcomes Pope Francis at Baghdad International Airport

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi welcomes Pope Francis at Baghdad International Airport

Pope Francis waves to the crowd upon his arrival in Baghdad, Iraq

Pope Francis waves to the crowd upon his arrival in Baghdad, Iraq

Pope Francis waves to the crowd upon his arrival in Baghdad, Iraq

A motorcade escorts Pope Francis during his historic tour in Baghdad

Motorcycle outriders, part of Francis's security detail while he is in Iraq, accompany his car after he arrived in Baghdad

Motorcycle outriders, part of Francis's security detail while he is in Iraq, accompany his car after he arrived in Baghdad

Motorcycle outriders, part of Francis’s security detail while he is in Iraq, accompany his car after he arrived in Baghdad

An armoured police truck drives past crowds waiting to see Pope Francis as he arrives in Baghdad on Friday

An armoured police truck drives past crowds waiting to see Pope Francis as he arrives in Baghdad on Friday

An armoured police truck drives past crowds waiting to see Pope Francis as he arrives in Baghdad on Friday

People stand by the road as they wait for Pope Francis to arrive in Baghdad, Iraq, during his historic first visit to the country

People stand by the road as they wait for Pope Francis to arrive in Baghdad, Iraq, during his historic first visit to the country

People stand by the road as they wait for Pope Francis to arrive in Baghdad, Iraq, during his historic first visit to the country

Pope Francis speaks to journalists aboard his airplane as he head from Rome to Iraq, telling journalists that he is 'happy' to be travelling again after a year being 'caged' at the Vatican

Pope Francis speaks to journalists aboard his airplane as he head from Rome to Iraq, telling journalists that he is 'happy' to be travelling again after a year being 'caged' at the Vatican

Pope Francis speaks to journalists aboard his airplane as he head from Rome to Iraq, telling journalists that he is ‘happy’ to be travelling again after a year being ‘caged’ at the Vatican

Francis also told reporters that he sees the trip as 'a duty to a land that has been martyred for years'

Francis also told reporters that he sees the trip as 'a duty to a land that has been martyred for years'

Francis also told reporters that he sees the trip as ‘a duty to a land that has been martyred for years’

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 jihadist attack left dozens dead in 2010.

He will also visit the northern province of Nineveh, where in 2014 IS jihadists 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. 

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.

Francis

Francis

Francis

Francis

Pope Francis boarded an Alitalia flight from Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport on Friday bound for the Iraqi capital Baghdad – where he will complete a four-day tour

Francis vowed that the journey would go ahead despite concerns for his safety after a rocket attack on a US airbase on Wednesday killed one person

Francis vowed that the journey would go ahead despite concerns for his safety after a rocket attack on a US airbase on Wednesday killed one person

Francis vowed that the journey would go ahead despite concerns for his safety after a rocket attack on a US airbase on Wednesday killed one person

Early on Friday the Pope boarded a plane for his four-day journey to Iraq

Early on Friday the Pope boarded a plane for his four-day journey to Iraq

The trip is his first abroad since the Covid-19 pandemic first took a hold last year

The trip is his first abroad since the Covid-19 pandemic first took a hold last year

Early on Friday the Pope boarded a plane for his four-day journey to Iraq, his first abroad since the Covid-19 pandemic first took a hold last year

In his first foreign trip since the start of the pandemic Pope Francis will visit Baghdad, Najaf, Erbil and the cities of Qaraqosh and Mosul, which were heavily destroyed by ISIS

In his first foreign trip since the start of the pandemic Pope Francis will visit Baghdad, Najaf, Erbil and the cities of Qaraqosh and Mosul, which were heavily destroyed by ISIS

In his first foreign trip since the start of the pandemic Pope Francis will visit Baghdad, Najaf, Erbil and the cities of Qaraqosh and Mosul, which were heavily destroyed by ISIS

A member of Rome's police force in full dress uniform salutes Pope Francis as he climbs aboard the Alitalia flight to Baghdad at Leonardo da Vinci Airport on Friday

A member of Rome's police force in full dress uniform salutes Pope Francis as he climbs aboard the Alitalia flight to Baghdad at Leonardo da Vinci Airport on Friday

A member of Rome’s police force in full dress uniform salutes Pope Francis as he climbs aboard the Alitalia flight to Baghdad at Leonardo da Vinci Airport on Friday

Pope Francis shook hands with Alitalia's Special Commissioner Giuseppe Leogrande (pictured) when he arrived to board the plane to Baghdad at Rome's Fiumicino international airport this morning

Pope Francis shook hands with Alitalia's Special Commissioner Giuseppe Leogrande (pictured) when he arrived to board the plane to Baghdad at Rome's Fiumicino international airport this morning

Pope Francis shook hands with Alitalia’s Special Commissioner Giuseppe Leogrande (pictured) when he arrived to board the plane to Baghdad at Rome’s Fiumicino international airport this morning

Security will be tight in Iraq, which has endured years of war and insurgency and is still hunting for Islamic State sleeper cells

Security will be tight in Iraq, which has endured years of war and insurgency and is still hunting for Islamic State sleeper cells

Security will be tight in Iraq, which has endured years of war and insurgency and is still hunting for Islamic State sleeper cells

Francis greets officials at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport on Friday as he boards a plane for his flight to Iraq

Francis greets officials at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport on Friday as he boards a plane for his flight to Iraq

Francis greets officials at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport on Friday as he boards a plane for his flight to Iraq

Pope Francis prepares to leave from Fiumicino's International airport Leonardo da Vinci, near Rome, for Baghdad, Iraq

Pope Francis prepares to leave from Fiumicino's International airport Leonardo da Vinci, near Rome, for Baghdad, Iraq

Pope Francis prepares to leave from Fiumicino’s International airport Leonardo da Vinci, near Rome, for Baghdad, Iraq

Pope Francis is seen through the plane window as he departs for his trip to Iraq from Leonardo Da Vinci airport

Pope Francis is seen through the plane window as he departs for his trip to Iraq from Leonardo Da Vinci airport

Pope Francis is seen through the plane window as he departs for his trip to Iraq from Leonardo Da Vinci airport

Francis will spend four days in Iraq, holding prayer services around the country and is due to return to Rome on Monday

Francis will spend four days in Iraq, holding prayer services around the country and is due to return to Rome on Monday

Francis will spend four days in Iraq, holding prayer services around the country and is due to return to Rome on Monday

Italian and Vatican City flags are seen on the front of the aircraft as it departs from Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport

Italian and Vatican City flags are seen on the front of the aircraft as it departs from Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport

Italian and Vatican City flags are seen on the front of the aircraft as it departs from Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport

The four-day visit is designed to provide hope to Iraq's Christians after years of persecution and increase the Vatican's outreach to Islam

The four-day visit is designed to provide hope to Iraq's Christians after years of persecution and increase the Vatican's outreach to Islam

The four-day visit is designed to provide hope to Iraq’s Christians after years of persecution and increase the Vatican’s outreach to Islam

The Alitalia plane carrying Pope Francis takes off from Rome's Fiumicino airport for his trip to Iraq

The Alitalia plane carrying Pope Francis takes off from Rome's Fiumicino airport for his trip to Iraq

The Alitalia plane carrying Pope Francis takes off from Rome’s Fiumicino airport for his trip to Iraq

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.’ 

The pope has insisted on the visit despite resurging 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 Shiites.

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, a major supporter of inter-religious dialogue, 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.

Banners with pictures of Pope Francis on them hang from lampposts in the Iraqi capital ahead of his arrival today

Banners with pictures of Pope Francis on them hang from lampposts in the Iraqi capital ahead of his arrival today

Banners with pictures of Pope Francis on them hang from lampposts in the Iraqi capital ahead of his arrival today

Security will be tight during Francis's visit, with crowds largely absent from the streets and limits placed on prayer services

Security will be tight during Francis's visit, with crowds largely absent from the streets and limits placed on prayer services

Security will be tight during Francis’s visit, with crowds largely absent from the streets and limits placed on prayer services

Security members of a special division stand guard at a street in Baghdad's Karada district

Security members of a special division stand guard at a street in Baghdad's Karada district

Security members of a special division stand guard at a street in Baghdad’s Karada district

An Iraqi security guard stands in front of a huge billboard bearing portraits of Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani who will meet on Saturday as part of the pontiff's visit

An Iraqi security guard stands in front of a huge billboard bearing portraits of Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani who will meet on Saturday as part of the pontiff's visit

An Iraqi security guard stands in front of a huge billboard bearing portraits of Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani who will meet on Saturday as part of the pontiff’s visit

Christian families gather outside St. George Chaldean Church, as they wait for the arrival of Pope Francis, in Baghdad, Iraq

Christian families gather outside St. George Chaldean Church, as they wait for the arrival of Pope Francis, in Baghdad, Iraq

Christian families gather outside St. George Chaldean Church, as they wait for the arrival of Pope Francis, in Baghdad, Iraq

Iraqi Christians gather at the Church of the Virgin Mary before going to the airport to welcome Pope Francis in Baghdad, Iraq

Iraqi Christians gather at the Church of the Virgin Mary before going to the airport to welcome Pope Francis in Baghdad, Iraq

Iraqi Christians gather at the Church of the Virgin Mary before going to the airport to welcome Pope Francis in Baghdad, Iraq

Buses were put on in Iraq to take residents to the airport to await the Pope's arrival today in Baghdad

Buses were put on in Iraq to take residents to the airport to await the Pope's arrival today in Baghdad

Buses were put on in Iraq to take residents to the airport to await the Pope’s arrival today in Baghdad

A mural depicting Pope Francis was placed on a concrete wall by Iraqi security forces to surround the Our Lady of Salvation Church during preparations for the Pope's visit

A mural depicting Pope Francis was placed on a concrete wall by Iraqi security forces to surround the Our Lady of Salvation Church during preparations for the Pope's visit

A mural depicting Pope Francis was placed on a concrete wall by Iraqi security forces to surround the Our Lady of Salvation Church during preparations for the Pope’s visit

Iraq Christians have prepared posters welcoming Pope Francis to St. Joseph's Chaldean Church

Iraq Christians have prepared posters welcoming Pope Francis to St. Joseph's Chaldean Church

Iraq Christians have prepared posters welcoming Pope Francis to St. Joseph’s Chaldean Church

An Iraqi security member stands near a poster of Pope Francis ahead of his arrival, in Baghdad

An Iraqi security member stands near a poster of Pope Francis ahead of his arrival, in Baghdad

An Iraqi security member stands near a poster of Pope Francis ahead of his arrival, in Baghdad

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