Pope Francis left Rome on Friday to start a four-day trip to Iraq, his most risky foreign trip since his election in 2012 and the first visit by a pontiff to the country.
An Alitalia airplane carrying the pope, his entourage, a security detail, and about 75 journalists, left Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport for the 4-1/2-hour flight to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
Iraq is deploying thousands of additional security personnel to protect Francis during the visit, which comes after a spate of rocket and suicide bomb attacks raised fears for the Catholic leader’s safety.
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 three-day tour
The trip marks the first ever visit by a pope to Iraq. John Paul II had planned to go in 1999, but abandoned the trip amid security concerns and political pressure
On Wednesday morning, 10 rockets landed on an airbase that hosts U.S., coalition and Iraqi forces. Hours after that attack, the pope reaffirmed he would be going to Iraq.
The 84-year-old will visit four cities, including the former Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, where churches and other buildings still bear the scars of conflict.
Francis will also visit Ur, birthplace of the prophet Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, and meet Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Before leaving the Vatican the Pope met 12 refugees from Iraq who have been living in Italy.
The trip is the pope’s 33rd outside Italy. He is due to return to Rome on Monday morning.
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
The three-day visit is designed to provide hope to Iraq’s Christians after years of persecution and increase the Vatican’s outreach to Islam
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