The leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, is currently visiting Iraq for the first time.

Jubilant crowds of Iraqis have welcomed the pontiff along his journey, which is the first papal visit ever to the country. As he stood in Mosul on Thursday, amid ruins of churches demolished by the Islamic State terrorist organization, which once ruled the city, he called for peaceful coexistence and urged Iraqi authorities to protect and respect its dwindling and vulnerable Christian minority.

In his speech in Mosul, the Pope lamented the spread of violence and extremism in Iraq.

“How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people – Muslims, Christians, Yazidis – who were cruelly annihilated by terrorism and others forcibly displaced or killed,” he said.

While crossing Israeli airspace on his flight from Rome to Baghdad, Pope Francis sent a message to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and the people of Israel.

“To His Excellency Reuven Rivlin, President of the State of Israel. Entering Israeli airspace on my Apostolic journey to Iraq, I send warm greetings to you and the people of the nation. Praying that Almighty God will bless you all with His gifts of harmony and peace. Franciscus Papa.”

Rivlin, who maintains warm ties with the pontiff, was reportedly deeply moved by the Pope’s words.

On Saturday, the Pope visited the historically important city of Ur in southern Iraq, the traditional birthplace of the Prophet Abraham who is a central figure in the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. At the ruins in Ur, the pontiff called for peace and tolerance between the different religious communities in the fractured and war-torn Iraqi society. According to biblical tradition, God told Abraham to leave the city of Ur and migrate to the Promised Land where he would eventually lay the foundation of the Hebrew nation.

Francis urged Muslim and Christian religious leaders to reject hatred and instead unite in peace. The Pope also stressed the danger of extremism and terrorism in the name of religion.

“We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion,” the Pope said.

The first papal visit to Iraq is particularly important to the threatened Christian minorities in Iraq and the Middle East. While Christianity originated in the region, the number of Christians in the Middle East has dwindled fast during the last century. In the early 20th century, Christian minorities constituted approximately 20% of the total population in the Middle East. However, due to discrimination, Islamic extremism and persecution, Christians today barely make up 5% of the region’s population.

Prior to the U.S.-led toppling of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq was home to around 1.5 million Christians. After years of civil war and violence, most Iraqi Christians emigrated to the West. As a result, only a few hundred thousand Christians remain in Iraq and their future looks uncertain at best.

Similar developments have occurred throughout the Middle East with persecuted Christian minorities fleeing from countries such as Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. Israeli leaders say that the Jewish state is the only country in the region where Christian minorities are safe, free and stable.

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