ERBIL, Iraq — Pope Francis concluded on Monday a trip to Iraq that made history with every step and demonstrated that Iraq, still beset by violence and recovering from decades of war and mismanagement, was able to pull off a visit that would have posed a challenge for any country.
“It’s huge. It’s huge,” President Barham Salih told The New York Times about the importance of the visit after seeing Francis off at Baghdad airport. “I am not underestimating the challenges facing Iraq, but the visit by the pope was a remarkable affirmation of the essence of these values of tolerance and coexistence that are deeply rooted in Iraqi society,” said Mr. Salih, who is Kurdish.
For Iraqi officials, the visit was an affirmation of the country’s importance in the region, after years of isolation by Sunni Arab countries because of Iraq’s Shiite majority leadership. It was also a support for leaders who have expressed concern about how sectarian and political divisions have weakened the country.
The stops on the 84-year-old pontiff’s four-day trip illustrated the hollowing out of the historic religious diversity in a land seen as the birthplace of monotheistic religions; a country badly scarred by sectarian violence and the legacy of the Islamic State’s brutal takeover of parts of northern Iraq and Syria.
Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy killed when his family’s rubber dinghy capsized between Turkey and Greece. The photo of the small boy’s body washed up on a beach in Greece helped focus attention on the plight of refugees and migrants desperate to reach Europe.
Iraqi officials said they hoped to start an ongoing interreligious dialogue, but acknowledged the difficulties ahead.
“The pope, he cannot make a miracle ,” said Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, the Iraqi Christian leader whom France promoted in 2018. “We sows the seeds, but we have to water them, and God will bless them and let them grow.”
Jason Horowitz contributed reporting.