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Pope’s Planned Visit to Iraq, Amid Pandemic, Raises Questions of Timing

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Pope Francis has said he is determined to visit the war-torn country. But some worry that the visit will become a superspreader event in a land where the virus still rages.

A banner depicting Pope Francis in Qaraqosh, a town of Syriac Catholics, in Iraq last week. A banner depicting Pope Francis in Qaraqosh, a town of Syriac Catholics, in Iraq last week.Credit…Zaid Al-Obeidi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images Jason Horowitz

  • March 4, 2021Updated 9:38 a.m. ET

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has said that he has canceled trips during the pandemic because “in conscience I cannot provoke gatherings,” but that the only thing that would stop him from becoming the first pope to visit war-scarred Iraq would be a new surge in infections.

That is exactly what has happened. A spike in coronavirus cases has prompted Iraqi officials to impose lockdowns. Shiite authorities have suspended religious pilgrimages. On Sunday, the Vatican’s own ambassador contracted the virus and went into isolation. For good measure, suicide bombings, rocket attacks and geopolitical tensions have increased, too.

But, Francis, to the bewilderment of many, is intent on going anyway. After more than a year cooped up behind the Vatican walls, he will fly to Baghdad on Friday at one of the most virulent moments of the entire pandemic, sending a message that flies in the face of nearly all public health guidelines and putting potentially thousands of Iraqis in danger.

“The day after tomorrow, God willing, I will go to Iraq for a three-day pilgrimage,” Francis said Wednesday in his weekly address to the faithful, only hours after a new barrage of rocket attacks. “I ask that you accompany this apostolic trip with prayer so that it can occur in the best way possible, bear the hoped-for fruit. The Iraqi people await us.”

ImageFinal preparations being made last week at the Al-Tahira church in Qaraqosh, one of the sites that Francis will visit. Final preparations being made last week at the Al-Tahira church in Qaraqosh, one of the sites that Francis will visit.Credit…Hawre Khalid/Getty Images

Francis was himself vaccinated in mid-January, and while he has come under some criticism for a refusal to wear masks in private audiences, he has called on wealthy countries to give vaccines to poorer ones, and called a refusal to vaccinate “suicidal.”

The pope’s entourage is also vaccinated, but there is anxiety among the pope’s supporters that a trip designed largely to bring peace and encouragement to Iraq’s long-suffering Christians has the potential to be a superspreader event. The possibility, and potential disaster, of the 84-year-old pope inadvertently endangering an Iraqi population with practically no access to vaccines is not lost on his allies back in Rome.

“There is this concern that the pope’s visit not put the people’s health at risk, this is evident,” said Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest and close ally of Francis. “There is an awareness of the problem.”

Even Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, expressed concern about the trip, in an interview with Corriere della Sera, an Italian newspaper, calling the travel important but “dangerous.”

The Vatican insists the March 5-8 trip will be a safe, socially distanced and sober visit devoid of the usual fanfare and celebrations. On Tuesday, Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, downplayed the number of cases in Iraq as he addressed reporters who asked how the pope could possibly justify not delaying a trip that could endanger so many. He also emphasized the relative young age of many Iraqis and said that the pope would travel in a closed car so as not to attract crowds.

“No more than a few hundred people, distanced” would be gathered to see him to minimize the risks, he said.

But Francis is planning a large mass with thousands of people in a soccer stadium in the Kurdish town of Erbil, and will likely draw crowds to watch him pray in Qaraqosh, a town of Syriac Catholics, in the northern Nineveh Plains.

A joint Kurdish and Christian orchestra and choir during a rehearsal at a stadium in the Kurdish town of Erbil on Monday.Credit…Gailan Haji/EPA, via Shutterstock

“There will be a lot of people,” the Rev. Karam Qasha, a Catholic priest in northern Iraq, said days before the trip, as he registered attendees for the mass in Erbil. “Every day, someone calls me and asks me, ‘Father, it’s also my dream to see the pope, can you insert me among those who will go?’”

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