An Iraqi civil defence worker sprays disinfectant in front of a mural depicting Pope Francis at the Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, Iraq, on March 2.
An Iraqi civil defence worker sprays disinfectant in front of a mural depicting Pope Francis at the Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, Iraq, on March 2. Ameer Al Mohammedaw/dpa/picture alliance/Getty Images

Ahead of Pope Francis’ historic trip to Iraq Friday, the Vatican says the visit will go ahead despite rising Covid-19 infections there.

“All the precautions have been taken from a health point of view,” Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni told journalists at a briefing on Tuesday. 

“The best way to interpret the journey is as an act of love; it’s a gesture of love from the Pope to the people of this land who need to receive it,” he said.

When questioned by journalists about the potential risks to Iraqis of a spread of coronavirus, Bruni said that the Pope “will not encounter crowds.”

“He will travel in a closed car and it will be difficult to see him from the street. But even to see him on TV will be worth it,” he said.

On Wednesday, the Pope urged Catholics to pray for a successful trip. “I ask you to accompany with prayer this apostolic trip, so that it might take place in the best of ways and bring home the desired results.
“The Iraqi people are waiting for us. They had waited for Pope John II, who was prohibited from going. We cannot disappoint a country (a people) for the second time. Let’s pray so that this trip can be done well.” 

Pope Francis and his entourage have all been vaccinated against Covid-19, the Vatican said — despite the announcement by its embassy in Iraq on Sunday that its ambassador, Mitra Leskovar, has tested positive for Covid-19.

The Pope will be staying at the Vatican embassy throughout his trip, the Vatican said on Tuesday. Ambassador Leskovar has been transferred to another residence.

The Pope will visit Najaf, a site sacred to Shia Muslims, where Mohammed’s son-in-law, Imam Ali, is buried. 

Najaf is home to one of the most important teaching centers in the Islamic world, and there Pope Francis will meet privately with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most influential Shia Muslim leaders.

“The significance of the meeting goes beyond just the meeting itself,” Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni said on Tuesday.

Pope Francis has made dialogue with Muslims a cornerstone of his papacy. In 2019, he famously signed a joint document with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the head of the top Sunni Muslim authority and university of Al-Azhar, in Abu Dhabi, encouraging peace among people of different faiths.
“The Pope goes to Iraq looking for his brothers and comes as a brother,” Bruni said.

In Qaraqosh, Francis will meet Christians at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception which was almost wholly destroyed by ISIS 2016-17; the church’s courtyard was used during the ISIS occupation as a firing range. 

The declining Christian population in Iraq is one of the major reasons for the Pope’s trip, according to the Vatican.

“I am a pastor of people who are suffering,” the Pope said in an interview last month with Catholic News Service, discussing his upcoming trip.

In Ur, Francis will also meet with some representatives of Iraq’s minority Yazidi community, which suffered killings and enslavement by ISIS in 2014.

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