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Pope Francis makes first-ever papal visit to Iraq amid violent threats and a deadly virus

It was a pilgrimage never seen before, in the face of violent threats and a deadly virus. Pope Francis arrived on Friday in Baghdad for the first-ever papal visit to Iraq. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was a pilgrimage never seen before, in the face of violent threats and a deadly virus.

    Nick Schifrin has the story of Pope Francis in Iraq.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the birthplace of Abraham, Pope Francis was welcomed as a hero and prayed with the most vulnerable Christians. Iraqi Catholics are the epitome of what Francis calls the martyred church. Today, he honored their sacrifices.

  • Pope Francis (through translator):

    In the last few decades, you and your fellow citizens have had to face the effects of war and persecution, an ongoing struggle for economic and personal security, which has often led to internal displacement and the migration of many, including Christians.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He spoke in Our Lady of Salvation, in the same sanctuary that, 11 years ago, hosted horror. In October 2010, militants from al-Qaida in Iraq, precursor to ISIS, stormed into Sunday evening service. They shot the men, then the women and children, and, before they could be captured, blew themselves up.

    At the hospital after, chaos, bloody survivors in desperate need, hallways full of wounded, and a lone priest helping to heal.

    It was the deadliest attack on Iraqi Christians ever, and in a nearby bed, then-19-year-old Melad Shabo.

  • Melad Shabo (through translator):

    They started shooting everywhere and anyhow. I was shot, and I fell. I wanted to run, but the bullet had torn my leg's bone off. It felt like we were in the middle of a war. Gunshots were coming off from everywhere.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Shabo had spent every day at that church, and lost 10 close friends. He also lost his mentor, Father Thaer Abdal.

  • Melad Shabo (through translator):

    He was more than a priest, more than a father or a brother. He was my role model in life. He taught me everything, how to live with Jesus.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Father Thaer and Father Wassim Sabih tried to shield parishioners and offered themselves instead. They were both executed.

  • Melad Shabo (through translator):

    He and Father Wassim, all they wanted was to help people. To me, they were simply angels.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The angels' coffins, were wrapped in Iraqi flags, 58 people killed. But the attack wasn't only designed to kill Christians. It was designed to kill a version of Iraq that, in the '80s and '90s, despite Saddam Hussein's tyranny, was diverse, integrated, and welcoming of multiple religions, including Iraq's Christians, which trace their lineage back 2,000 years.

  • Melad Shabo (through translator):

    The attack, it was a message to all Christians and all minorities that Iraq is not their country, that they are not welcome, and that they should leave.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And they did leave. Iraq's Christians used to number in the millions, today, no more than a few hundred thousand, pushed out after the U.S. invasion by militias, and then pushed out by ISIS.

    When Islamic State militants captured Mosul in 2014, they gave Christians 24 hours to leave or convert, or be beheaded. Today, ISIS might be gone, but security is tight; 10,000 police and soldiers secured Francis' visit. He was driven in an armored car, in a motorcade, on empty streets.

    Today, he urged the country and Iraqi leaders to build bridges between religions.

  • Pope Francis (through translator):

    Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as members of the same human family will we be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave to future generations a better, more just and more humane world.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Shabo needed eight surgeries to recover. Today, he lives in France and is a mechanic for public buses. He's also in his church choir, and says Francis' visit gives Iraqi Christians hope.

  • Melad Shabo (through translator):

    It will give Christians courage and confidence to stay in the country. The moral support will help them a lot. At least they know there is someone standing with them, thinking about them. It's very important.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Shabo watched the pope speak in the church that still haunts his nightmares. But Shabo still dreams of returning to Iraq with his French family to prove Christians once again belong in Baghdad.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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