By David Brophy
Pope Francis is to travel to Iraq today, his first-ever papal visit since the start of the pandemic.
The Pope wants to support the country's dwindling Christian population and encourage them to rebuild after years of war and persecution.
However, the trip comes amid a new spike in infections and security concerns in the country.
The four-day trip will include a meeting with Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Pope Francis plans to pray in the Baghdad church that was the scene of one of the worst massacres of Christians in Iraq.
He is to visit Mosul, a city that was destroyed by the Islamic State (IS) militants.
The Pope is to bless the restored Qaraqosh's Grand Immaculate Church, which was desecrated by IS who used it for firing practice.
Around 10,000 Iraqi Security Forces personnel will be deployed to protect the Pope during the visit.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said Iraqis were eager to welcome the pope's “message of peace and tolerance” and described the visit as a historic meeting between the “minaret and the bells.”
“I come among you as a pilgrim of peace, to repeat ‘you are all brothers,’” Francis said in a video-message to the Iraqi people on the eve of his visit.
“I come as a pilgrim of peace in search of fraternity, animated by the desire to pray together and walk together, also with brothers and sisters of other religious traditions.”
Christians were once a sizable minority in Iraq but have dwindled in number during the Islamic State's reign from 2014 to 2017.
Christian leaders estimate there are fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining in Iraq, with the largest population living in the north of the country.