UPDATE – Pope Francis leaves Rome to start historic pilgrimage in Iraq

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ROME, March 5 (Reuters) – Pope Francis left Rome on Friday to start a four-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 about 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 during the visit, which comes after a spate of rocket and suicide bomb attacks raised fears for the Catholic leader’s safety.

On Wednesday morning, 10 rockets landed on an airbase that hosts U.S., coalition and Iraqi forces. Hours after that attack, the pope reaffirmed he would be going to Iraq.

The 84-year-old will visit four cities, including the former Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, where churches and other buildings still bear the scars of conflict.

Francis will also 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.

Before leaving the Vatican the Pope 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.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Pope Francis’ visit to the Middle Eastern nation comes as the realization of a dream of his predecessor, Pope St. John Paul II, who had planned to travel to Iraq at the end of 1999 but could not make the journey. The Pope’s four-day journey will include visits to several cities, as well as meetings with Christian communities and religious leaders.

Pope John Paul II cancelled plans for a trip at the end of 1999 after talks with then-President Saddam Hussein’s government broke down.

In the two decades since then, one of the world’s oldest Christian communities has seen its numbers plummet from 1.4 million to about 250,000.

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