Pope Francis and Iraqi President Barham Saleh

By Muhaimin Olowoporoku

The Vatican press office on Monday announced that Pope Francis will travel to Iraq in March next year, the first by the head of the Vatican.

The pope would visit Baghdad, the city of Erbil, as well as Mosul and Qaraqosh during his March 5-8 visit.

Iraq’s foreign ministry said the Pope’s visit “represents a historic event and support for all Iraqis of all sectors.”

“It also represents a message of peace to Iraq and to the region as a whole, affirms the unity of the humanitarian position in confronting extremism and conflicts, and promotes diversity and tolerance and coexistence,” the ministry said in a statement.

Only 1 percent of Iraqi residents are Christians now.

This follows an exodus of Christians in recent decades as Iraq was wracked by cycles of violence, including the rise of ISIS.