Pope Francis will visit Iraq next March in what could be first foreign trip since pandemic

Francis waves to pilgrims in St. Peter's square during his Sunday Angelus prayer on October 25.

Rome (CNN)Pope Francis will travel to Iraq in March 2021, the Vatican press office announced on Monday.

His trip to the war-torn country could be his first outside of Italy since the coronavirus pandemic began. Francis is set to "visit Baghdad, linked to the memory of Abraham, the city of Erbil, as well as Mosul and Qaraqosh in the plain of Nineveh" from March 5-8, the Vatican communique said.
"The programme of the journey will be made known in due course, and will take into consideration the evolution of the worldwide health emergency," it added.
    The Pope's visit "represents a historic event and support for all Iraqis of all sectors," Iraq's foreign ministry said in a statement. "It also represents a message of peace to Iraq and to the region as a whole, affirms the unity of the humanitarian position in confronting extremism and conflicts, and promotes diversity and tolerance. And coexistence."
      The Pope has long sought a trip to Iraq, Vatican News reported Monday, and told a meeting of Catholic aid agencies last year that he wanted to travel there in 2020.
      "I think constantly of Iraq -- where I want to go next year -- in the hope that it can face the future through the peaceful and shared pursuit of the common good on the part of all elements of society, including the religious, and not fall back into hostilities sparked by the simmering conflicts of the regional powers," Francis said during the June 2019 meeting.
      Pope Francis met with Iraqi President Barham Salih at the Vatican on January 25 and they spoke about "preserving the historical presence of Christians in the country" and "highlighting the need to guarantee their security and a place in the future of Iraq," Vatican News reported.
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