Pope says he will visit Iraq as 'pilgrim of peace'
On the eve of his historic trip to Iraq, Pope Francis paid tribute Thursday to those who have suffered from years of violence, saying he came as a "pilgrim of peace", AFP reports.
In a video message, the 84-year-old offered his hand to "brothers and sisters of other religions", but also highlighted the heavy toll paid by Iraq's Christian communities, saying there had been "too many martyrs".
"I long to meet you, to see your faces, to visit your land, ancient and extraordinary cradle of civilisation," the pope said.
"I come as a pilgrim, a penitent pilgrim to implore forgiveness and reconciliation from the Lord after years of war and terrorism."
"I come as a pilgrim of peace in search of fraternity, animated by the desire to pray together and to walk together, also with the brothers and sisters of other religions," he added.
The pope, making his first foreign trip since the coronavirus pandemic swept Europe a year ago, will arrive in Iraq on Friday before embarking on a packed schedule of events through to Sunday.
From central Baghdad to the Shiite shrine city of Najaf, welcome banners featuring his image and Arabic title "Baba al-Vatican" already dot the streets.
From Ur, the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham in the southern desert, to ravaged Christian towns in the north, roads are being paved and churches rehabilitated.
Among the most extraordinary moments of the trip will be his one-on-one meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highly reclusive cleric, who is a top religious authority for many of the world's Shiite Muslims.