ROME (AP) — Pope Francis said Monday he is still planning to visit Iraq in March, even if most Iraqis have to watch him on television to avoid the coronavirus. The important thing, he said, is “they will see that the pope is there in their country.”
After St. John Paul II canceled a planned 2000 visit to Iraq, Francis said he has every intention of keeping his word to visit because he doesn’t want to disappoint the Iraqi people a second time. Only a serious new surge in infections would put the trip in question, he said.
“I am the pastor of people who are suffering,” Francis told Catholic News Service during an audience to mark the 100th anniversary of the news agency of the U.S. bishops conference.
Francis is scheduled to visit Iraq March 5-8 in what would be the first-ever papal trip to the country. The Vatican has confirmed he intends to go, but hasn’t released the itinerary yet and has said the trip ultimately depends on the health situation on the ground.
Virus cases in Iraq have been steadily dropping since peaking in late summer and are averaging around 800 new cases a day. At least 13,000 people have died among more than 618,000 confirmed cases across Iraq since February. The Vatican delegation will be vaccinated in time for the trip, but the main concern for organizers is to keep ordinary Iraqis safe, given crowds always form when the pope is out in public.
The trip is aimed primarily at encouraging the country’s beleaguered Christians, who faced decades of discrimination by Iraq’s Muslim majority before being targeted relentlessly by Islamic State group militants starting in 2014. Francis is due to visit Christian communities in the north that were leveled by fighting.
“The pope feels the need to go and give encouragement to these Christians, and invite them to continue giving their witness in an environment that is not at all easy,” the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told French Catholic broadcaster KTO over the weekend.
Last week, Iraq’s top Catholic official, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, said Francis would also meet with the country’s top Shiite Muslim cleric, Ali al-Sistani, in a significant highlight of the trip. Francis is also due to preside over an interfaith meeting in Ur, the birthplace of Abraham.
Samya Kullab in Baghdad, Iraq, contributed to this report.