Pope Francis Visiting Regions of Iraq once held by IS

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source: BBC

On the third day of a historic visit to Iraq, Pope Francis is visiting northern Iraq areas controlled by Islamic State (IS) militants.

In 2014, IS took control of the city, focusing on Christians and other minorities. Since the defeat of IS in 2017, Christians are now returning.

The Pope will hold Mass at a football stadium in Irbil later on Sunday, with up to 10,000 people invited to attend.

However, the fear is present that the ritual may be a spreading case for coronavirus.

In Iraq, Covid-19 infections have increased sharply over the past month.

The Catholic Church's 84-year-old leader and his entourage were all vaccinated, but just last week, Iraq was given their first batch of coronavirus doses.

The four-day tour, which started on Friday, is the pontiff's first foreign trip since the outbreak more than a year ago, as well as the country's first papal visit.

Some Shia Muslim rebel groups are said to be opposed to the visit, claiming it is an attempt by the West to meddle in the country's affairs.

The Pope was greeted by the head of Iraq's Kurdistan province, Nechirvan Barzani when he arrived in the northern city of Irbil early on Sunday.

Over 10,000 Iraqi Security Services officers have been mobilized to secure Pope Francis during his visit, and round-the-clock curfews have been placed to prevent Covid from spreading.

Since he arrived in Baghdad on Friday, Pope Francis has called for an end to terrorism, extremism, and violence, as well as a more significant role for Iraq's declining Christian population as people with full rights, liberties, and obligations.

In his first speech in the country, he said that Christians' long presence in the country and sacrifices to the nation's life constitute a rich heritage that they want to continue to put to everyone's service.

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani,-the 90-year-old spiritual leader of millions of Shia Muslims- has not much meeting with leaders, but he met with Pope Francis for around 50 minutes, without face masks.

The Pope later paid a visit to Ur's ancient city, which is thought to be the birthplace of Abraham.

In a message delivered there, Pope said, "If terrorism violates faith, we believers cannot be silent; let us not cause the glory of heaven to be obscured by clouds of hate."