Pope Francis, out of COVID hiding, arrives for a controversial 1st-ever papal visit to Iraq

Pope Francis starts historic trip to Iraq
Pope Francis starts historic trip to Iraq 02:43

Last Updated Mar 5, 2021 8:45 AM EST

Baghdad — Pope Francis arrived in Iraq's capital on Friday for the first-ever papal visit to the country. The pontiff's decision to end his personal coronavirus lockdown and leave Italy for the first time in more than a year with a visit to Iraq has proven as controversial as it is historic.

CBS News correspondent Chris Livesay, who traveled with the pope from Rome to Baghdad, reports that Iraq is currently seeing a spike in COVID-19 infections, and there are also concerns over the country's deteriorating security situation.

The trip has been 2,000 years in the making: The first time any pope in the history of Christianity has set foot in the birthplace of Abraham of the Old Testament.

Iraq Pope
Pope Francis is flanked by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi upon his arrival at Baghdad's international airport, March 5, 2021. Andrew Medichini/AP

Having been vaccinated against the coronavirus himself last month, Francis said he wanted to come to Iraq "as a pilgrim of peace," to visit one of the most ancient — and beleaguered — Christian communities on Earth.

Decades of war and terrorism have pushed Iraq's Christians into the margins of society, Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil told CBS News.  

Ancient monastery in Iraq survives upheaval 04:17

"Two thirds of the Christians left Iraq," Warda said, pointing most recently to the ISIS terror group's rampage across a vast swath of the country's north half a decade ago. "Bombing churches, kidnapping and killing bishops and priests and Christians — because they are Christians. That's religiously motivated."

The historically Christian town of Qaraqosh in Iraq's north was sacked by ISIS militants in 2014. Iraqi forces reclaimed it two years later and, today, Christian refugees are still returning and rebuilding. They've been preparing for the Pope's visit on Sunday.

"Pope Francis has insisted on coming here, despite the many challenges and the many people who didn't want him to," Qaraqosh resident Nazeer Doma, a Christian, told CBS News.

Those concerns are two-fold: ISIS and other security threats have hardly disappeared in Iraq. On Wednesday, 10 rockets slammed into an airbase used by U.S. forces. One American contractor died of a heart attack during the attack. It was just the latest incident amid an uptick in violence by Iran-backed militias and other terror groups.

U.S. contractor dies in attack at Iraq base 01:34

But an even deadlier menace in the country right now is the coronavirus pandemic. Iraq has been registering an average of 4,000 new cases every day recently — triple the number of infections seen over the past month.

In a country where hospitals have been left threadbare by decades of unrest, they're ill-equipped to cope with what some fear could be a series of super-spread events hosted by the leader of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis' visit to the Philippines six years ago drew a record 6 million people into Manila.

But Christians from across Iraq say the pope's visit is shedding light on their plight.

"We are under threat of extinction," said Maysun Habib, a Christian woman in the northern town of Batnaya. "If we stay like this, with Christian families being displaced, if the Christians aren't protected, then emigration is the next step."

More than 125,000 of Iraq's Christians have b... 13:23

Pope Francis was to spend the rest of Friday meeting with Iraq's prime minister and president, with whom he's expected to address religious freedoms in the country. 

Iraqi and Vatican authorities insist that COVID-19 safety measures will be strictly enforced throughout the pope's four-day visit, and they note that not only Francis, but his entire entourage have been inoculated against the disease.

But the throngs of Iraqis who are expected to gather for his Masses, speeches and prayers, have not.