Vatican defends pope’s Iraq trip amid virus as ‘act of love’

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican defended Pope Francis’ decision to go ahead with his trip to Iraq this weekend despite rising coronavirus infections there, saying Tuesday all health care precautions have been taken and that the trip is an “act of love for this land, for its people and for its Christians.”

Francis is due to visit Iraq Friday-Monday in his first foreign trip since the pandemic erupted last year. Planning for the trip went into high gear after infections fell, but cases have spiked in the past month and infectious disease experts say a papal trip to a country with a fragile health care system simply is not a good idea.

The Vatican has taken its own precautions, with the 84-year-old pope, his 20-member Vatican entourage and the 70-plus journalists on the papal plane all vaccinated. Iraq, however, only began its vaccination campaign Tuesday and most Iraqis who come to see the pope won’t be inoculated.

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni was asked how the Vatican could justify exposing Iraqis to such a risk of infection when the Vatican itself has been on a modified lockdown for months, with no public audiences, and why the trip couldn’t be postponed for even a few months.

Bruni noted that Iraq has a predominantly young population and that the current daily caseload was small compared to the overall population. He said the trip has been designed to limit crowds, and that all papal events would follow Iraqi health protocols that include limited participation, social distancing, mask mandates and other measures.

The pope will use a covered car — likely armored — for all his transfers, which the Vatican says should limit the formation of crowds on the street. However, he is to celebrate a Mass for an expected 10,000 people in the sports stadium in Erbil and will use an open car there.

“An entire community and an entire country will be able to follow this journey through the media and know that the pope is there for them, bringing a message that it is possible to hope even in situations that are most complicated,” he said.

Asked why the trip couldn’t be postponed, Bruni said this period was “the first possible moment for a journey like this” and that there is “an urgency” to go.

The aim of the trip is to encourage Iraq’s dwindling Christian communities that were violently persecuted by the Islamic State group, and to promote greater dialogue with Iraq’s Shiite majority. The trip will mark the first-ever papal meeting with a grand ayatollah, the Iranian-born Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani.

“Perhaps the best way to interpret this journey is as an act of love for this land, for its people and for its Christians,” Bruni said. “Every act of love can be interpreted as extreme, but as an extreme confirmation to be loved and confirmed in that love.”

He acknowledged there might be consequences, but said the Vatican measured the need for Iraqis to feel the pope was close to them and loved them. “Obviously the pope also looks at this need,” Bruni said.

Francis’ itinerary includes a meeting Friday with priests, seminarians and nuns in the Syro-Catholic Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad, where Islamic militants in 2010 slaughtered 58 people in what was the deadliest assault targeting Christians since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The massacre was carried out by Al-Qaida in Iraq, which later became the Islamic State group.

Francis will also travel north, to Kurdistan and the northern Iraqi cities of Mosul and Qaraqosh, which were devastated by IS and where Christian communities that date to the time of Christ were nearly emptied of their residents, and their churches and homes destroyed.

In between, Francis will travel to southern Najaf to the home of al-Sistani, a figure revered in Iraq and the Shiite world. Nearby, he will preside over an interfaith gathering in Ur, the biblical birthplace of Abraham, the prophet common to Christians, Muslims and Jews. The meeting is expected to take place in the shadow of Ur’s magnificent pyramid-shaped zigguraut, part of a UNESCO world heritage site.