Pope Francis left Rome on Friday to start a four-day trip to Iraq, his most risky foreign trip since his election in 2012 and the first visit by a pontiff to the country.
An Alitalia airplane carrying the 84-year-old pope, his entourage, a security detail, and about 75 journalists, left Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport for the 4-1/2-hour flight to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
Iraq is deploying thousands of additional security personnel to protect Francis during the visit, which comes after a spate of rocket and suicide bomb attacks raised fears for his safety.
The flags of Iraq and the Vatican City fluttered outside Baghdad airport in anticipation of his arrival.
He will say Mass at a Baghdad church, meet Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric in the southern city of Najaf and travel north to Mosul, where the army had to empty the streets for security reasons last year for a visit by Iraq’s prime minister.
The pontiff will also visit Ur, birthplace of the prophet Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, and meet Iraq’s revered top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
The trip is the pope’s 33rd outside Italy. He is due to return to Rome on Monday morning.