Pope calls for end to violence on first ever visit to Iraq

(Update 1: updates headline, lead, adds detail)

Baghdad, Mar 5 (efe-epa).- Pope Francis, who began the first ever papal visit to Iraq on Friday, called for an end to violence and extremism in the war-torn Middle Eastern country.

The pontiff arrived on Friday morning for a three-day trip to Iraq, his first foreign trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

In an address to Iraqi leaders later in the day, Francis called on the international community to commit to bringing peace to the country, which has been ravaged by war since 2003, and the wider Middle Eastern region “without imposing political and ideological interests.”

He urged that “weapons be silenced, that their proliferation be prevented, here and everywhere” and called for an end to “special interests”, “those external interests that are indifferent to the local population.”

“No more violence, extremism, factions, intolerance”, he added.

He said “the international community has a decisive role to play in promoting peace in this land and throughout the Middle East” and cited the conflict in neighboring Syria, which has dragged on for over a decade.

During his visit to what he called “the cradle of civilization”, the pontiff is due to meet with members of the country’s Christian minority community which was persecuted by the Islamic State that occupied parts of Iraq for three years until the terror group was defeated in late 2017.

“The age-old presence of Christians in this land, and their contributions to the life of the nation, constitute a rich heritage that they wish to continue to place at the service of all,” he said during his speech.

Later on Friday the pontiff held Mass at Baghdad’s Syriac Catholic church of Our Lady of Salvation, which was targeted in a 2010 attack by Islamic extremists affiliated with al-Qaeda, which left 52 Christians and police dead.

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