“It was my great wish to meet the pope and pray for my sick daughter and pray for her to be healed. But this wish was not fulfilled,” said Raad William Georges, a 52-year-old father of three who said he was turned away when he tried to see Francis during his visit to Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral in the Karrada neighborhood.
“This opportunity will not be repeated,” he said ruefully. “I will try tomorrow, I know it will not happen, but I will try.”
Francis told reporters aboard the papal plane that he was happy to be resuming his travels again and said it was particularly symbolic that his first trip was to Iraq, the traditional birthplace of Abraham, revered by Muslims, Christians and Jews.
“This is an emblematic journey,” he said. “It is also a duty to a land tormented by many years.”
Francis was visibly limping throughout the afternoon in a sign his sciatica nerve pain, which has flared and forced him to cancel events recently, was possibly bothering him. He nearly tripped as he climbed up the steps to the cathedral and an aide had to steady him.
At a pomp-filled gathering with President Barham Salih at a palace inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, Francis said Christians and other minorities in Iraq deserve the same rights and protections as the Shiite Muslim majority.
“The religious, cultural and ethnic diversity that has been a hallmark of Iraqi society for millennia is a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to eliminate,” he said. “Iraq today is called to show everyone, especially in the Middle East, that diversity, instead of giving rise to conflict, should lead to harmonious cooperation in the life of society.”
Salih, a member of Iraq’s ethnic Kurdish minority, echoed his call.
“The East cannot be imagined without Christians,” Salih said. “The continued migration of Christians from the countries of the east will have dire consequences for the ability of the people from the same region to live together.”
The Iraq visit is in keeping with Francis’ long-standing effort to improve relations with the Muslim world, which has accelerated in recent years with his friendship with a leading Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb. It will reach a new high with his meeting Saturday with Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a figure revered in Iraq and beyond.
Iraq’s Christians, whose presence here goes back nearly to the time of Christ, belong to a number of rites and denominations, with the Chaldean Catholic the largest, along with Syriac Catholics, Assyrians and several Orthodox churches. They once constituted a sizeable minority in Iraq, estimated at around 1.4 million. But their numbers began to fall amid the post-2003 turmoil when Sunni militants often targeted Christians.
Few have returned — estimates suggest there are fewer than 300,000 Christians still in Iraq.