Pope Francis salutes the faithful at the end of his weekly general audience at the Vatican, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. Image Credit: AP

Vatican city: Pope Francis indicated on Wednesday he would not be visiting Iraq this year as he had hoped to do.

His improvised comments to a group of visiting Iraqis during his general audience in St. Peter's Square were his clearest yet that the potentially dangerous trip had been indefinitely postponed.

"To you citizens of Iraq, I say I am very close to you. You are (in) a battleground. You suffer war, from one side and the other," he said. "I pray for you and I pray for your country, where a visit by me had been programmed for this year." The pope first said in June that he wanted to visit Iraq, birthplace of the Biblical patriarch Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, in 2020.

But security concerns meant that the trip was never announced by the Vatican and preparations never reached a formal stage.

Iraq's small Christian population of several hundred thousand suffered particular hardships when Daeshcontrolled large parts of the country, but have recovered freedoms since the jihadists were pushed out.

Last month, Francis met Iraqi President Barham Salih and the two agreed that the country's national sovereignty must be respected, following attacks on its territory by the United States and Iran.

Iranian forces fired missiles from Iran at two military bases in Iraq housing U.S. troops on Jan. 8 in retaliation for Washington's killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike a Baghdad airport on Jan. 3.

Shortly after the Iranian attack, Francis urged the United States and Iran to avoid escalation and pursue "dialogue and self-restraint" to avert a wider conflict in the Middle East.

The Christian presence in Iraq, and some other countries in the Middle East, has been depleted over the years by wars and conflicts.