© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis meets Iraqi President Barham Salih at the Vatican
By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Rockets hit Iraqi cities and COVID-19 has flared up. Subject to last-minute changes, Pope Francis will embark on a four-day hurricane tour starting Friday to demonstrate solidarity with the country’s devastated Christian community.
Desperate to get back on the streets after the pandemic impacted several planned trips, he convinced some stunned Vatican aides that it was worth the risk and that he definitely made up his mind, three Vatican sources said .
“He itches to go out on the streets after such a long time,” said a Vatican official. “Despite some concerns, the general mood here is that all systems are up.”
The March 5-8 trip is Francis’ first outside of Italy since November 2019 when he visited Thailand and Japan. Four trips planned for 2020 have been canceled due to COVID-19.
“He really feels that there is a need to reach people in their homeland,” said the official, a Vatican Pratat who is familiar with Iraq and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Vatican officials and local church leaders are pleased that the Iraqi armed forces will be able to provide adequate security to the Pope and his entourage.
“The Pope knows where he is going. He deliberately comes to an area marked by war and violence to deliver a message of peace,” Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil told reporters in a recent conference call.
“The authorities take the Pope’s safety very seriously as 10,000 security guards are deployed for this purpose,” he said.
TRIP ELUDED OTHER POPES
The conflict in Iraq, the birthplace of the prophet Abraham revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, made a trip by Francis’ predecessors elusive.
But while the wars are over, the violence continues.
At least 32 people were killed in a suicide attack in Baghdad in January. The Pope condemned the bombings.
Last Monday, rockets hit Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings and foreign embassies. There were no losses.
Another shadow hanging over the trip is the coronavirus pandemic, which, along with security measures, is drastically limiting the number of people who will see the Pope in person.
Officials have banned most travel within the provinces after more than 4,000 new cases were discovered Thursday, bringing the total to more than 600,000 cases so far.
84-year-old Francis has said it is important to make the trip, even if most Iraqi Christians will only see him on TV.
“You will see that the Pope is there in your country,” he told Catholic News Service last month, adding: “I am the pastor of people who suffer.”
Several representatives from the Vatican and Iraqi Churches say they are doing everything possible to ensure that papal apparitions do not turn out to be super-spreader events.
The Pope and his entourage, including the accompanying press corps, were vaccinated. But most of the people who will be attending papal events have not. A first batch of 50,000 cans is due to arrive in Iraq from China on Monday.
SOCIALLY DISTANTED SOCIETIES
Two gatherings in churches in Baghdad are limited to about 100 people each, with social distancing and masks required.
Up to 10,000 people will have numbered seats for a papal mass in a stadium in Erbil with a capacity of 30,000, and contact tracing will be possible in the event of an outbreak, Warda said.
The planners of the trip to the Vatican and Iraq received a sobering reminder of the spread of the coronavirus in Iraq on Saturday when Archbishop Mitja Leskovar, the Vatican’s ambassador there, said he had tested positive and went into self-isolation.
Leskovar was the main planner of the trip and was to stand by the Pope’s side throughout the visit.
“This will not affect the Pope’s program, which is running as planned,” Leskovar told Reuters.
For safety reasons and to avoid attracting crowds, the Pope will use a closed car, not a popemobile, on the streets, a Vatican source said.