The Latest: Pope honors massacre victims at Baghdad church

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Iraqi Christians gather at the Church of the Virgin Mary before going to the airport to welcome Pope Francis in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, March 5, 2021. Pope Francis heads to Iraq on Friday to urge the country’s dwindling number of Christians to stay put and help rebuild the country after years of war and persecution, brushing aside the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns to make his first-ever papal visit. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

BAGHDAD (AP) — The Latest on Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq to deliver a message of hope to the country’s dwindling Christian community following years of unrest and amid a devastating pandemic (all times local):

5:50

Pope Francis is honoring the victims of one of Iraq’s most brutal massacres of Christians by Islamic militants by saying their deaths are a reminder that violence is incompatible with authentic religious teaching.

Francis was welcomed joyfully with song and a yellow and white flower necklace as he entered Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral, hours after he arrived in Iraq for the first-ever papal visit.

Francis was praying at the church, where on Oct. 31, 2010 extremists gunned down worshippers in an attack that left 58 people dead. Forty-eight were Catholic, and the Vatican is considering their beatification as “martyrs” in the first step to possible sainthood. Photos of the 48 adorned the altar where Francis spoke.

Meeting with Iraqi priests, seminarians and religious sisters, Francis said: “Their deaths are a powerful reminder that inciting war, hateful attitudes, violence or the shedding of blood are incompatible with authentic religious teaching.”

Francis noted Iraqi Christians had suffered during years of war, economic hardships and persecution. But he urged them to persevere “in order to ensure that Iraq’s Catholic community, though small like a mustard seed, continues to enrich the life of society as a whole.”

An aide helped the 84-year-old pope up the steps to the cathedral as it appeared his sciatica nerve pain was making it difficult and painful to walk. Outside, hundreds of Iraqi security personnel wearing black uniforms and carrying light weapons maintained a tight cordon, preventing people from wandering around nearby.

4:45 p.m.

Pope Francis is urging Iraqis to value their religious minorities and consider them a “precious resource” to protect, not an obstacle to eliminate as he opened the first-ever papal visit to Iraq with a plea for tolerance and fraternity.

Francis told President Barham Salih and other Iraqi authorities gathered at the Baghdad palace inside the heavily fortified Green Zone that no one should be considered a second-class citizen. He said Iraqis of all faiths deserve to have the same rights and protections as the Shiite Muslim majority.

He said: “Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as members of the same human family will we be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave to future generations a better, more just and more humane world.”

Despite the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns, Francis came to Iraq to try to encourage its dwindling number of Christians, who were violently persecuted by the Islamic State group and face continued discrimination by the Shiite Muslim majority. He is urging them to remain and help rebuild the country after years of war.

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4:30 p.m.

Iraq’s president has welcomed the first-ever papal visit to Iraq as an opportunity to improve Christian-Muslim relations, saying Pope Francis’ decision to go ahead with the tour despite the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns had “doubled” its value.

President Barham Salih spoke Friday at a meeting at the presidential palace with Francis that was attended by other top Iraqi officials shortly after the pontiff’s arrival.

Salih lamented that the Middle East was facing a “crisis of coexistence” owing to regional tensions and extremism. He stressed the importance of peaceful coexistence and the preservation of Iraq’s nearly 2,000-year-old Christian community.

He said “the East cannot be imagined without Christians,” and that their continued migration will have “dire consequences.” He expressed support for the establishment of an Abraham House for Religious Dialogue, named for the shared patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Iraq was home to nearly 1.5 million Christians before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and plunged the country into chaos. Church officials say only a few hundred thousand remain, following years of instability and militant attacks.

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3:30 p.m.

Pope Francis arrived inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq’s government, to meet with President Barham Salih and other officials.

Horsemen carrying both Iraqi and Vatican flags escorted his motorcade inside the Green Zone, which houses key government buildings and foreign embassies.

Salih greeted Francis outside the presidential palace. Both men wore masks as a band played the Vatican and Iraqi national anthems.

Francis, who has been vaccinated along with his entourage, shook hands with several Iraqi officials.

Public health experts have expressed concern about the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, fearing it could accelerate the country’s already worsening coronavirus outbreak. The Vatican said strict health measures would be taken, but many in the crowds greeting Francis were not wearing masks or keeping their distance from others.

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2:45 p.m.

Pope Francis rolled down the window of his car to wave at some of the hundreds of people who gathered to greet him as his motorcade rolled through Iraq’s capital.

Crowds waving Iraqi and Vatican flags gathered along Baghdad’s airport road — the scene of regular attacks in the years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion — to greet the pontiff on the first-ever papal visit to the country. Iraqi authorities hope to highlight the improved security situation after declaring victory against the Islamic State group in 2017.

The Pope, who arrived earlier on Friday, was on his way to the presidential palace where he is to meet with President Barham Salih and other officials. Francis hopes to deliver a message of peace and hope to Iraq’s Christian community, which has dwindled in recent years of war and unrest.

The Vatican had defended going ahead with the trip despite Iraq’s worsening coronavirus outbreak, saying social distancing and other health measures would be enforced. But many in the airport and along the motorcade route were packed together and not wearing masks.

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2 p.m.

Pope Francis has arrived in Iraq on a visit to rally the country’s dwindling Christian community after decades of war.

The pontiff’s landmark visit has been months in the making and is the first papal visit to Iraq, one that eluded his predecessors. He brings a message of peace and coexistence to comfort the country’s deep-rooted Christian minority, many of whom fled the country in the successive conflicts that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

His trip will begin in Baghdad, where he is due to deliver speeches and celebrate Mass in the capital’s churches, and cover the holy city of Najaf, the plains of Ur in Nassiryah province, as well as Mosul and Irbil in the north.

The Alitalia flight, with both Vatican and Iraqi flags, carrying the pope and his delegation landed just before 2 p.m. (1100GMT). A red carpet was rolled out on the tarmac in Baghdad’s international airport.

Hundreds of people gathered along the airport road with hopes of catching a glimpse of the pope’s convoy.

Iraq was estimated to have nearly 1.5 million Christians prior to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. Now, church officials estimate only a few hundred thousand, or even fewer, remain with Iraq’s borders.

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11:30 a.m.

Dozens of Christians are gathering at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Baghdad hours before Pope Francis was due to land in Iraq for a first papal visit to the war-weary country.

Men, women and children gathered inside the church early in the morning. Many were not wearing masks and sat close to each other. One man tapped his feet impatiently, as they waited to be shuttled to the airport in buses.

The papal visit has raised alarm among public health experts, who fear large crowds will inevitably gather to see the pope.

Iraq is confronting a worsening coronavirus outbreak driven by a more infectious strain that first appeared in the U.K.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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