Infectious disease experts are expressing concern about Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to Iraq, given a sharp rise in coronavirus infections there, a fragile health care system and the unavoidable likelihood that Iraqis will crowd to see him.
No one wants to tell Francis to call it off, and the Iraqi government has every interest in showing off its relative stability by welcoming the first pope to the birthplace of Abraham. The March 5-8 trip is expected to provide a sorely-needed spiritual boost to Iraq’s beleaguered Christians while furthering the Vatican’s bridge-building efforts with the Muslim world.
Persecution has already slashed the country's Christian community -- one of the world's oldest -- from 1.5 million in 2003 to just 400,000 today.
The 84-year-old pontiff plans to voice solidarity with them and the rest of Iraq's 40 million people during an intense week of visits nationwide.
From central Baghdad to the Shiite shrine city of Najaf, welcome banners featuring his image and Arabic title "Baba al-Vatican" already dot the streets.
From Ur, the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham in the southern desert, to ravaged Christian towns in the north, roads are being paved and churches rehabilitated in remote areas that have never seen such a high-profile visitor.
The pope’s upcoming visit to Iraq is a “precious gift” not only for the Christians who live there, but for all those who after years of war want a return to peace and coexistence between religions, a priest who worked for eight years in the diocese of Mosul told Arab News.
“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time. Pope Francis is coming … to invite us to all be instruments of peace,” said Fr. Jalal Jako.
“Like a dove, he’ll bring a twig of peace to all the people living in this land who’ve suffered for too long.”
Jako, currently in Italy, will return to Iraq for the pope’s visit, which will begin on March 5.