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The New Arab Staff

First papal visit to Iraq to go ahead despite Covid-19, security concerns

Pope Francis' Iraq visit is not without concern [Getty]

Date of publication: 1 March, 2021

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The 84-year-old pope will make his first visit to the country despite being in to coronavirus age risk group.
Pope Francis will go ahead with his trip to Iraq this week, in first-ever papal visit to the conflict-torn country, aimed at encouraging the dwindling Christian community to remain in their ancient homeland.

The 84-year-old pontiff, who has been vaccinated against Covid-19, intends to go ahead with the trip despite concerns over the coronavirus pandemic and the security situation in the country.

Francis' main reason for trip to Iraq is to encourage the country's Christians, who allegedly faced decades of discrimination by Iraq's Muslims, before being persecuted by the Islamic State group in 2014.

Iraqi Christians see the historic visit as a massage of hope, reconciliation, coexistence, and a way forward to rebuild Iraq.

The visit will be the first trip abroad in 15 months for the Pope, and all members of the papal entourage will be vaccinated before departure.

Social distancing measures will be in place during his three-day visit, and the wearing of masks at events will be mandatory.

Pope Francis is expected to visit the capital Baghdad, the Shia holy city of Najaf and the city linked to the Old Testament figure of Abraham, Ur. He is also expected to visit Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh in the Nineveh plains.

"The visit entails risks, and the pope is taking the risks because he sees himself as a pastor, as a father, as one who goes to whoever is in difficulty," Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Oriental Churches told America magazine.

"As for security, I believe the Iraqi government will take all the measures to ensure the visit is tranquil." 

Speaking on the visit, Louis Raphael Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church said:

"Spreading common human and religious values, love, tolerance, recognition of the other, acceptance of the other, to respect the other, to respect life, which is sacred, life is sacred, respect public money, we are in need of all these big headlines which we lost during the past 18 years and that is why we are retreating."

He added: "If we do not reconcile and forgive each other, this means we will vanish."

The Pope last year signed a historic declaration of fraternity with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar mosque.

Thousands of Christians were killed in the north under Islamic State between 2014 and 2017, with hundreds of thousands fleeing their home over fears of prosecution.

The trip is thought to be a much-needed spiritual boost to Iraq’s Christians, and it is hoped that the it will strengthen ties between the Vatican and the Muslim world.

Concerns over Covid-19

From a purely epidemiological standpoint, as well as the public health message it sends, a papal trip to Iraq amid a global pandemic is not advisable, health experts say.

Their concerns were reinforced with the news on Sunday that the Vatican ambassador to Iraq, the main point person for the trip who would have escorted Francis to all his appointments, tested positive for Covid-19 and began self-isolating.

The embassy later said Archbishop Mitja Leskovar's symptoms were mild and that he was continuing to prepare for Francis' visit.

Beyond his case, experts note that wars, economic crises and an exodus of Iraqi professionals have devastated the country's hospital system, while studies show most of Iraq's new Covid-19 infections are the highly-contagious variant first identified in Britain.

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