VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis said Wednesday that he is praying for the people of Iraq, and repeated his desire to visit the country.

Speaking to pilgrims from the Middle East during his general audience address, the pope gave a special welcome to people from Iraq, who he said were present in a “nice group.”

“Citizens of Iraq, I tell you I am very close to you. You are in a battlefield, you suffer a war, from one side and the other,” Pope Francis said Feb. 26.

The pope said he is praying for peace in Iraq and referred to his hope to visit the country in 2020.

“I pray for you and I pray for peace in your country, which it was planned that I visit this year,” Pope Francis said. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni subsequently confirmed to CNA that a papal visit to Iraq will not take place this year.

Pope Francis said in June he would like to visit Iraq in 2020 and two Catholic bishops from the country had also referred to the possibility of a papal trip there.

Pope Francis has wanted to visit Iraq throughout his pontificate, but it has not yet been possible due to the Iraqi Civil War, Iraqi-Kurdish conflict, and continued security concerns in different parts of the country.

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin visited Iraq during the Christmas season in 2018, and concluded at the time that the country was still unsafe for a papal visit.

If Pope Francis does eventually travel to Iraq, he would become the first pope to visit the nation.

Since the beginning of October, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been protesting government corruption, a lack of economic growth, and proper public services. They have also objected to foreign influence over their country’s internal affairs.

Government forces have used tear gas and bullets against protesters in what are the largest demonstration Iraq has seen since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. 

As of Jan. 13, more than 660 people had been killed in the demonstrations, according to the Iraqi War Crime Documentation Centre.

On Feb. 1, Iraq appointed a new prime minister, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, after the previous prime minister resigned in November in response to the protests.

Allawi praised the protests soon after his appointment. The prime minister-designate is now forming a government, which is scheduled for a parliamentary vote of approval Feb. 27.