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Pope weighed coronavirus risks of Iraq trip but believed God would protect the faithful

A closeup of Pope Francis.
Pope Francis speaks to journalists aboard the papal plane Monday en route to Rome from Iraq.
(Yara Nardi / Pool photo)

Pope Francis said Monday that he weighed the risks of a visit to Iraq during the COVID-19 pandemic and decided to go ahead with it after much prayer and faith in God to look out for the Iraqis who might be exposed to the coronavirus during his high-profile trip.

Francis described his decision-making process during his trip back to the Vatican from Iraq amid concerns that his four-day visit — which featured oftentimes maskless crowds in packed churches, singing — could result in the spread of infections in a country with a fragile healthcare system and a sustained surge in new cases.

Francis said the idea of a trip “cooks over time in my conscience,” and that the pandemic was the issue that weighed most heavily on him. Francis has experienced close up the ravages of COVID-19 in Europe, given that Italy has had one of the worst outbreaks in the world, with the official death toll soon to hit 100,000.

“I prayed a lot about this. And in the end I took the decision freely,” Francis said. “It came from inside. I said, ‘He who makes me decide this way will look after the people.’

“I took the decision this way,” the pope said, “but after prayer and knowing the risks.”

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Francis on Monday wrapped up the first papal trip to Iraq, which was aimed at bringing hope to the country’s marginalized Christian minority while boosting relations with the Shiite Muslim world.

Pope Francis encourages Iraqis to treat Christians as a precious resource to protect, not an ‘obstacle,’ as he begins first-ever papal visit to Iraq.

At every turn of his trip, Francis urged Iraqis to embrace diversity — from Najaf in the south, where he held a historic face-to-face meeting with powerful Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to Nineveh to the north, where he met with Christian victims of the Islamic State group and heard their testimonies of survival.

At every turn, he experienced crowds that often ignored social-distancing norms and mask requirements, even though the Vatican and Iraqi church officials had promised that anti-coronavirus measures would be enforced.

Francis, the Vatican delegation and traveling media were vaccinated against COVID-19, while most Iraqis haven’t been. Infectious disease experts had questioned the wisdom of such a trip, in light of the fact that Iraq’s caseload is now being spurred by the more infectious strain that first appeared in the U.K.

Iraq recorded 4,068 infections Saturday, up significantly from infection rates at the start of the year. In total, 13,500 people have died of COVID-19 in Iraq out of 720,000 confirmed infections.

Terrorized by Islamic State, Iraq’s dwindling Christians hope a historic visit by Pope Francis starting next week will boost their chances to survive.

Although Francis said he prayed about the decision, it was also clear that the globe-trotting pope of the peripheries was getting antsy being cooped up at the Vatican for more than a year. He said he hoped he soon might be able to resume public audiences at the Vatican, which have been suspended for months, and hinted at a possible trip to Lebanon.

“After these months of imprisonment, and truly I felt a bit imprisoned, this for me is to live again,” he said of the chance to be close to his flock. “To live again because it’s touching the church, the holy people of God.”

In one of the historic highlights of the trip, Francis was invited into the home of the reclusive Sistani, among the most influential and revered Shiite clerics, and together they delivered a powerful message of peaceful coexistence and affirmed the rights of Iraqi Christians. The Vatican hopes the message can help preserve the place of the thinning Christian population in Iraq’s tapestry of faith and ethnic groups.

Francis said he was “honored” to have been received by Sistani, whom he called “a great man, a wise man, a man of God.”

“He was very respectful,” Francis said, publicly acknowledging the rare honor that the 90-year-old Sistani bestowed on him by standing up to greet him.

“He never stands up for the greeting. He stood up to greet me — twice,” Francis said. “This meeting was good for my soul. He is a luminary.”

Francis counted the meeting as the second major step forward in the Vatican’s interfaith efforts with Muslims after he penned a landmark document on shared Christian-Muslim values with a top Sunni cleric in 2019.

Francis also shot back at critics who characterized his outreach to Muslims as a watering-down of Roman Catholic doctrine or as downright heresy, saying that “sometimes you have to take risks to take steps forward.”

Pope Francis’ decision to forgo wearing a mask has been noticed with some concern by experts helping the Vatican navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These are risks that you take in prayer and in dialogue, in seeking advice and in reflection,” he said. “They are not [based on] whims.”

The trip, however, was taxing on the 84-year-old pope, whose sciatica nerve pain was apparently flaring and making him walk with a pronounced limp.

The next likely trip is to Budapest, Hungary, to close out an international conference in September, with a possible side trip to Bratislava, Slovakia, he said. Otherwise, the only other trip he has promised to make is to Lebanon, though he offered no time frame.


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