Pope John Paul II had to cancel plans to visit Iraq at the turn of this century as the country’s escalating tensions with the United States undermined negotiations with Saddam Hussein for a papal visit. Pope Benedict XVI had to cancel his plans because of security concerns.

And almost until the moment Pope Francis boarded the papal plane in Rome en route to Baghdad on Friday, the Vatican cautioned that his visit could be called off at any time.

Yet despite concerns about the coronavirus and a precarious security situation — with a military base in northern Iraq targeted by a missile strike two days before his scheduled departure — Francis held firm in his desire to visit the long-suffering and fading Christian community in the war-torn nation.

The pope has worn a mask in some places on the trip, but not in others. And people who had gathered closely together to see him have not always been masked.

Francis set an ambitious agenda taking him from the Plains of Nineveh to the northern region of Kurdistan, where his trip culminates on Sunday evening with an outdoor Mass for thousands at Franso Hariri soccer stadium in Erbil.

On the second day of his whirlwind tour of Iraq, Francis sought to use the shared history of Jews, Christians and Muslims to strengthen his call for unity and condemnation of violence.

He began his day by visiting Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite Muslims. The two men sat in a sparsely furnished room and discussed the role that spiritual leaders should play in a tumultuous world.

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