Pope Francis starts a historic trip to war-battered Iraq on Friday, defying security fears and the pandemic to comfort one of the world’s oldest and most persecuted Christian communities. In a video message, the 84-year-old offered his hand to “brothers and sisters of other religions”, but also highlighted the heavy toll paid by Iraq’s Christian communities, saying there had been “too many martyrs”. “I long to meet you, to see your faces, to visit your land, ancient and extraordinary cradle of civilisation,” the pope said. “I come as a pilgrim, a penitent pilgrim to implore forgiveness and reconciliation from the Lord after years of war and terrorism.” “I come as a pilgrim of peace in search of fraternity, animated by the desire to pray together and to walk together, also with the brothers and sisters of other religions,” he added. The pope, making his first foreign trip since the coronavirus pandemic swept Europe a year ago, will arrive in Iraq on Friday before embarking on a packed schedule of events till Sunday. While Francis has been vaccinated, Iraq has been gripped by a second wave with a record of over 5,000 new cases a day, prompting authorities to impose full lockdowns during the pontiff’s visit. From central Baghdad to the Shia shrine city of Najaf, welcome banners featuring his image and Arabic title “Baba al-Vatican” already dot the streets while roads are being paved and churches rehabilitated in ravaged Christian towns in the north, Among the most extraordinary moments of the trip will be his one-on-one meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highly reclusive cleric, who is a top religious authority for many Shia Muslims. Francis is fulfilling the dream of a predecessor, John Paul II, by visiting Iraq despite a rampaging coronavirus epidemic and an upsurge in violence. The security challenges were highlighted when a rocket attack hit a base hosting US-led coalition troops, which came after several weeks of escalating US-Iran tensions on Iraqi soil. The pope said on he was determined not to “disappoint” the Iraqi people.