BAGHDAD — Pope Francis ended his historic tour of Iraq on Monday, departing by plane from Baghdad after visiting conflict-torn cities, meeting Muslim and Christian leaders and preaching peace and coexistence over war.
Francis waved one last time from before boarding a plane flying the Vatican and Iraqi flags from its cockpit windows. President Barham Salih accompanied the 84-year-old pontiff down a red carpet to his flight.
During Francis’ trip, the first ever papal visit to Iraq, he toured four cities, including Mosul, the former Islamic State stronghold where vast areas still lie in ruins, telling Iraqis that “peace is more powerful than war.”
He said Iraq would “always remain with me, in my heart.”
The pontiff, who walked with a limp during parts of the frantic tour, also made a historical first in meeting Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric.
Iraqis welcomed the pope and said it was a chance for the world to see their perpetually crisis-hit nation in a new light.
Iraq suffers from chronic mismanagement and corruption, and a steady level of violence often linked to the region’s US-Iran rivalry 18 years after the United States invaded.
On Sunday, Pope Francis met the father of Alan Kurdi, the boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach six years ago became an image of the suffering of Syrians trying to escape war.
The pontiff, winding up a historic trip to Iraq, met Abdullah Kurdi at the end of Mass in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil, the Vatican said in a statement.
“The pope spent a long time with him (Kurdi) and with the help of an interpreter was able to listen to the pain of a father for the loss of his family,” it said.
Kurdi thanked Francis for his closeness to the tragedy and to the pain of “all those migrants who seek understanding, peace and security, leaving their country at the risk of their lives,” it added.
Alan Kurdi drowned along with his mother and brother when a smuggling boat taking them to Europe capsized off the coast of Turkey in 2015.
An image of his body washed up on the shore captured the world’s attention as millions of Syrians fled the civil war there and many boarded unsafe ships bound for a Europe that eventually began shutting its doors. Many drowned trying to make the journey.
The pope has long called for more compassionate treatment of migrants and refugees. In Iraq, where Abdullah Kurdi now lives in the autonomous Kurdish region, the pontiff preached for an end to conflict and sectarian violence. — Reuters