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 US, 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 ISIS 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.