Pope Francis left Rome on Friday to begin a 4-day trip to Iraq, his most risky foreign trip since his election in 2012 and the first visit by a pontiff to the country.
An Alitalia airplane carrying the pope, his entourage, a security detail, and nearly 75 journalists, left Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport for the 4-1/2-hour flight to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
Iraq is deploying thousands of additional security personnel to protect Francis as he visits the country, which comes after a spate of rocket and suicide bomb attacks raised fears for the Catholic leader’s safety.
On Wednesday morning, ten rockets landed on an airbase that hosts U.S., coalition and Iraqi forces. Hours after that attack, the pope reaffirmed he would be heading to Iraq.
The 84-year-old is set to visit 4 cities, including the former Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, where churches and other buildings still bear the scars of conflict.
Pope Francis is also scheduled to visit Ur, birthplace of the prophet Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, and meet Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Prior to his departure from the Vatican, Francis met 12 refugees from Iraq who have been living in Italy.
The trip is the pope’s 33rd outside Italy. He is due to return to Rome on Monday morning.