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Pope Francis in Iraq for historic papal visit

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Pope Francis is describing his trip to Iraq as an "emblematic journey," the first time any pontiff has set foot in the birthplace of Abraham of the Old Testament. Nicole Winfield, Vatican correspondent for the Associated Press, joins CBSN with more on the four-day journey, which comes amid rising COVID-19 infections and security concerns.

Video Transcript

- Pope Francis is describing his first trip to Iraq as an emblematic journey. The country's prime minister greeted the Catholic leader at Baghdad International Airport Friday. It is the first time any pontiff has set foot in the birthplace of Abraham of the Old Testament. The four-day journey comes at a time of rising COVID-19 infections and security concerns.

For more on this, I want to bring in Nicole Winfield. She's a Vatican correspondent with the Associated Press and joins us from Baghdad. Hi, Nicole. Great to see you. So the coronavirus and security fears make this trip risky, but the Pope is insisting he is duty bound. What is motivating this journey? And how are Iraqi citizens receiving him?

NICOLE WINFIELD: Well, the Vatican has been trying to get a Pope to Iraq for over two decades. St. John Paul wanted to come to mark the start of the-- of Christianity's third millennium. He was unable to do it then. Pope Francis picked up the mantle. Then the coronavirus hit. But he said, we're going to do it. And when he found this window, even though their cases are rising, he really pushed ahead, and here we are.

- And how is he being received in the country? How are the Iraqi people receiving him?

NICOLE WINFIELD: It seems like they are really happy to be-- that he's here. He was welcomed very warmly on the streets. People did line up on the roads to welcome him. They were flying flags along the motorcade route. Security is incredibly tough though, so none of them could get very close to him. At one point, he did wave as he went by, even though he's riding in an armored car, which is a first for this Pope. But Christians and Muslims alike seem very pleased that a Pope has finally come to their country.

- And we understand that he will spend four days in the region. How is the pontiff spending his time there?

NICOLE WINFIELD: Well, today was-- the first day is the protocol day. So he met with the president, the prime minister, and he greeted the clergy of Iraq in Baghdad. On Saturday, we'll be traveling south. He has a very important meeting with the top Shiite cleric, Ali al-Sistani, at his home in Najaf. And then Pope Francis will preside over a huge interfaith gathering in Ur. Ur, of course, is the traditional birthplace of Abraham. So that will be kind of the multi-faith dimension of this trip.

Sunday, we're going up to the North. That's where he will be visiting with the Christian communities. These were the communities that were really devastated during the Islamic State onslaught from 2014 to 2017. Pope Francis will pray with them. He will celebrate mass for them. And then we return to Rome on Monday.

- So you mentioned his meeting with Iraq's most revered Shiite Muslim cleric. What can we expect to come out of that meeting? What is the central message the Pope is hoping to relay?

NICOLE WINFIELD: This meeting is of incredible importance in the Shiite world. This is the first time a Pope has ever met with a Grand Ayatollah, and al-Sistani carries a lot of weight both politically, religiously, intellectually. And so for him to receive Francis, there is the belief that that will send a sign. It will sign-- send a signal to the Muslims of Iraq, to the Christians of Iraq, that Christians are an important part of this society, that they belong here, that for al-Sistani cisternae to welcome Francis means we should welcome our Christian brothers and sisters.

- It's so interesting because, of course, you know, we're seeing Iraq in a much different light through this together. The country has been a bedrock at certain periods in history for terrorism and violence. So is the Pope's visit hopefully changing that narrative?

NICOLE WINFIELD: Well, I think the Iraqi government certainly wants to show a different side of Iraq to the world. Whenever you have a Pope trip, you have the world's media focused on a country for the number of days that the Pope is here.

And so for a country that, as you said, has this terrible history of violence and terrorism, for them to show a different side, a different page, is clearly a message that the government wants to spread. And Pope Francis is certainly happy to help them with that if it also means that he can come and minister to primarily the Christian community here that has been so persecuted for so long.

- Nicole Winfield in Baghdad, thank you so much.