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

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. Shia 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.”

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.

“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?’”

While Father Qasha said that coronavirus cases seemed to be climbing exponentially, he wasn’t worried because of social distancing rules, and because many had already contracted the virus and healed.

He said he had recovered from the virus, and that his parishioners praying “all together” in the packed churches resulted in a miracle. “The virus almost disappeared from my town,” he said.

Cardinal Louis Raphael I Sako, the patriarch of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic church, said in an interview that when it comes to the large masses and Francis’ diplomatic meetings, “There is no risk for him, and also for people,” because social distancing and mask-wearing measures would be observed. “I don’t think there will be a risk for anybody.”

Andrea Vicini, a medical doctor, Jesuit priest and professor of moral theology and bioethics at Boston College, admired the pope’s willingness to put his own skin in the game for peace when it came to promoting dialogue with Islam and protecting the persecuted and people at the margins. He said Francis was keeping true to his Jesuit formation by traveling to the frontiers of the faith.

“He wants to show that he is ready to risk. The problem is that others will be at risk,” said Father Vicini, who, “as a physician,” worried that the pope was increasing the potential of putting people “in a situation of vulnerability. So he is balancing this.”

Paolo Benanti, a professor of ethics and bioethics at the Gregorian Pontifical University in Rome, said the danger of the pope’s trip during a pandemic had to be measured against the possibility of significantly improving the security situation for Christians and other Iraqis on the ground.

“Ethically speaking,” Professor Benanti said, the pope needed to balance the danger to Christians of failing to visit and highlighting their plight against the “danger of Covid-19 cases that spread out from this kind of travel. The greater good for the health and well being of the people could be peace.”

Father Spadaro envisioned the possibility of concrete improvements for Christians as a result of Francis’s meeting with Shiite leaders. But most experts, including priests on the ground in Iraq, consider that so far-fetched as to be fanciful.

“I don’t think anybody is under any illusion that problems will go away overnight,” said the Rev. Joseph Cassar, the country director for the Jesuit Refugee Service and, until the pope and his entourage arrive, the only Jesuit priest in the country.

But he also said the travel restrictions, social distancing measures, the filling of only a fraction of the outdoor stadium in Erbil and lack of access to the pope should prevent widespread transmission of the virus.

“One of the things that is dawning on people is that not everybody will be able to meet the pope, which in a way is unfortunate,” he said. “But I have also met many people who are saying even the fact that the pope sets foot in Iraq is something that is tremendously encouraging. It is a great sign and show of support from his side especially as numbers are dwindling.”

While the Vatican is counting on Iraqis to follow all social distancing rules, Father Cassar noted that people in the country tend to be “dismissive” and “nonchalant” about such rules, and didn’t seem all that worried despite the rise in cases and the detection of new variants in Iraq.

On Sunday, the Chinese government said it would donate the country’s first 50,000 doses.

Francis is not the first pope to try and go to Iraq. In 2000, Pope John Paul II sought to make a pilgrimage to Iraq, Egypt and Israel, with the first stop to the city of Ur, what tradition holds as the birthplace of Abraham, father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But negotiations with Saddam Hussein’s government broke down leading John Paul to have “wept,” Francis has said.

Benedict XVI was invited by Iraq’s prime minister in 2008, but had no chance to go given the war.

“To have a third pope who does not go is a very bad sign,” said Father Spadaro.

Security for the trip also emerged as an issue after recent suicide bombings in Baghdad, rocket attacks against U.S.-led coalition forces, including near Erbil airport, where the pope will arrive over the weekend, and retaliatory airstrikes by the Biden administration.

Before the trip, Francis said that even if those Iraqis only saw him on television it would means something because “they will see that the pope is there in their country.” He added, “I am the pastor of people who are suffering.”

“The best way to interpret this journey is as an act of love,” Mr. Bruni said on Tuesday, arguing that by nature, love “can be interpreted as extreme.”

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