In Iraq, Pope Francis Demands End to Spread of Weapons as Iran Tensions Build

Pope Francis has called for an end to the spread of weapons and violence on the first day of his visit to Iraq. The head of the Roman Catholic Church also made a plea for religious tolerance in a country where Christians make up a small minority.

The pope's visit comes amid simmering tensions between the U.S. and Iranian-backed groups operating in Iraq. The nation has seen recent violence, including a rocket attack on an American airbase on Wednesday.

Francis is the first reigning pontiff ever to visit Iraq and gave a speech at the presidential palace in Baghdad where he appeared with President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

"I come as a penitent, asking forgiveness of heaven and my brothers and sisters for so much destruction and cruelty. I come as a pilgrim of peace in the name of Christ, the prince of peace," the pope said, according to Catholic News Service.

"May the clash of arms be silenced! May their spread be curbed, here and everywhere," he said.

"May the voice of builders and peacemakers find a hearing! The voice of the humble, the poor, the ordinary men and women who want to live, work and pray in peace."

"May there be an end to acts of violence and extremism, factions and intolerance," the pope added. "May room be made for all those citizens who seek to cooperate in building up this country through dialogue and through frank, sincere and constructive discussion — citizens committed to reconciliation and prepared, for the common good, to set aside their own interests."

There had been concerns about Francis' trip due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the military situation in Iraq. However, the pope said on Friday he felt it was his "duty" to visit the country, while Iraqi authorities have insisted they can protect him, according to National Catholic Reporter. The pope and his entourage have also been vaccinated against the virus.

Francis made reference to Iraq's religious minorities in his address, saying "it is essential to ensure the participation of all political, social and religious groups and to guarantee the fundamental rights of all citizens."

"Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as members of the same human family will we be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave to future generations a better, more just and more humane world," he said later in response to comments from Salih.

The majority Muslim country has a population of almost 40 million but only between 200,000 and 300,000 Iraqis are Christians, according to The New Arab. The Christian population stood at around 1.5 million before the U.S. invasion in 2003.

The pope's comments on Friday echoed his remarks on February 8, criticizing the "proliferation of weapons" around the world and particularly in Syria, with which Iraq shares a land border.

The U.S. and Iran remain heavily involved in Iraq and tensions have escalated after Wednesday's air base attack. The Pentagon has been accused of providing cover to the Islamic republic by not publicly blaming Iran for the attack. No group has yet claimed responsibility but the rocket strike reportedly bares the hallmarks of Iran-aligned Shia militias.

Pope Francis Departs for Iraq
Pope Francis waves as he departs for his trip to Iraq from Leonardo Da Vinci airport on March 05, 2021 in Rome, Italy. Francis has urged an end to violence and the spread of weapons. Franco Origlia/Getty Images