Pope Francis is flying to Iraq for the first ever papal visit to the country, and his first international trip since the start of the pandemic.
The four-day trip is meant to reassure Iraq’s dwindling Christian community and foster inter-religious dialogue.
The Pope will meet Iraq’s most revered Shia Muslim cleric, say a prayer in Mosul and celebrate Mass at a stadium.
He has insisted on travelling despite a new spike in Covid-19 infections in Iraq and concerns over his security.
About 10,000 Iraqi Security Forces personnel will be deployed to protect the Pope, while round-the-clock curfews are also being imposed to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Hours after a rocket attack on a base hosting US troops on Wednesday, the Pope said Iraqi Christians could not be “let down for a second time”.
Pope John Paul II cancelled plans for a trip at the end of 1999 after talks with then-President Saddam Hussein’s government broke down.
In the two decades since then, one of the world’s oldest Christian communities has seen its numbers plummet from 1.4 million to about 250,000.
Many have fled abroad to escape the religiously motivated violence that has plagued the country since the US-led invasion in 2003 that ousted Saddam.
Tens of thousands were also displaced when Islamic State (IS) militants overran northern Iraq in 2014, destroying their historic churches, seizing their property, and giving them the choice to pay a tax, convert, leave or face death.