Pope Francis Defends Iraq Trip During Coronavirus Pandemic

Pope Francis speaking to reporters on Monday on the flight back to Rome from Iraq. 

ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — Pope Francis, lamenting that he felt like he was in “prison” under lockdown in the Vatican, said Monday that he wrestled over whether to visit Iraq in the midst of a pandemic but ultimately decided to put in God’s hands the fate of the Iraqis who gathered in crowded churches, often without masks, to see him.

“This is one of the things that most made me think ‘maybe, maybe,’” Francis, who is vaccinated, said during a news conference on the papal plane returning from Baghdad. “I thought about it a lot, I prayed a lot over this.”

The pope, who was not wearing a mask, said he was aware of the risks but after prayer, “it came from within and I said the one who allows me to decide this way will look after the people.”

The pope’s comments, in response to a question about whether he worried that his trip could result in the infection, and even death, of the faithful who packed churches and streets to see him, did not address the public health consequences of his decision.

Coronavirus cases in Iraq are climbing, with nearly 3,400 new infections and 24 deaths reported in the past 24 hours. Critics have said Francis’ high-profile trip, which involved many stops drawing thousands of people, sent a dangerous and irresponsible message to a world still in the grips of a lethal pandemic fueled by fast-spreading virus variants.

But supporters ave argued that the pope’s trip to Iraq was worth the risk to show his support for one of the most scarred, and suffering, corners of his church. Other popes have dreamed of visiting Iraq, which has an ancient but battered and shrunken Christian community, but Francis was the first to go, furthering his grand project of forging closer ties with the Muslim world and reasserting himself on the global stage after a year of lockdown.

But even as he succeeded in drawing attention to and showing support for the church in Iraq, there remained a lingering concern over the eventual cost.

ImageSupporters of the pope have argued that the trip to Iraq was worth the risk to show his support for one of the most scarred, and suffering, corners of his church.
Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

The Vatican’s foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, said in an interview on the plane that the Vatican had insisted that restrictions should be followed but that the local authorities had ultimate responsibility for such measures. He added, “We will be praying hard that things go well.”

In about 50 minutes of taking questions, Francis, who walks with a severe limp, acknowledged that his age, 84, made travel harder these days. “I confess I was much more tired in this trip than in the others,” he said.

He said he was not sure how much he would travel this year, the eighth of his pontificate, but that he planned to go to Lebanon, which he called “a country in crisis,” and was considering visiting Hungary and Slovakia.

He repeated now familiar views, arguing for more care for migrants and excoriating arms dealers. But he also took a victory lap of sorts after his whirlwind Iraq trip, which ranged from Baghdad, to the Plains of Ur, to Mosul and the Christian towns of the Ninevah Plain.

He recalled six months of “secret” negotiations preparing a document on “human fraternity” that he signed with Sunni religious leaders in Abu Dhabi in 2019, which he called a “first step.” Referring to his meeting on Saturday with the reclusive and powerful Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf, he said, “we can say that this is the second” step on the path to closer ties between the Roman Catholic Church and the Muslim world.

Francis called Ayatollah Sistani “a great man, a wise man, a man of God” and reported that the Shiite cleric told him that he had received few visitors — whether political, cultural or religious — for 10 years. The pope said that he felt honored that, against usual protocol, “he got up to greet me.”

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Credit…Vatican Media, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“It was good for my soul, this meeting,” he said.

Asked whether he saw the meeting as a message to hard-line ayatollahs in Iran, another Shiite majority country, Francis said only that the emphasis on fraternity between the religions at the meeting was “a universal message.”

Francis’s trip was intended to underline the tragic costs of failing to achieve that fraternity. On Sunday, he visited Mosul, once the capital of the Islamic State’s caliphate, and now a devastated monument to the destruction wrought by the group, with buildings and churches reduced to rubble, families decimated and traumatized, a once vibrant Christian population long gone.

The ruins he said, left him “speechless,” and added that as he stood in front of the obliterated Catholic church, as well as other demolished churches and mosques, he thought “I couldn’t believe” such cruelty existed.

Francis, who has made mercy a cornerstone of his pontificate, said the thing that most moved him were remarks by a woman in Qaraqosh, the northern Iraq town with the country’s largest Christian population, who talked about how she had lost her children to the Islamic State, but nevertheless had sought forgiveness for the militants.

The Vatican expressed great satisfaction with Francis’ trip, in which he made bold symbolic gestures for the fraternity between religions, but also came through on concrete action, including a statement of support for Iraq’s Christians by Ayatollah Sistani.

Still, there is a question of whether the pope’s trip will have any real and lasting impact.

“You don’t resolve the problems of a country like Iraq overnight and with a bit of ecumenism,” Archbishop Gallagher said. “It’s a significant contribution” in which the pope “has done something, it’s worked out, it’s overcome lots of obstacles and I think that sends a strong message,” he said.

“In a very spiritual dimension,” Archbishop Gallagher added, the pope is saying “No we shouldn’t just abdicate our responsibility or contribution. We can all do something.”

But there are also those who worry the pope, in causing crowds during his visit, had done something he may one day regret.

While Francis said he left the fate of the faithful he visited in Iraq with a higher authority, but he was more earthly when it came to his flock in Rome. Asked when he would resume public audiences with pilgrims in Rome, he suggested he would adhere to the health guidelines of Italy, which the Vatican generally follows.

“I would like to start the general audiences as soon as possible,” Francis said. “We hope that there are the conditions. I follow the rules of the authorities.”

Getting back out among the people, the pope said, was vital for him.

“After these months of prison,” he said, the trip was like “coming back to life.”

“I feel different when I’m far from the people,” Francis said, adding that priests needed to be with the people, or risk becoming an out of touch caste. “For this,” he said, “the contact with the people saves us.”

But supporters ave argued that the pope’s trip to Iraq was worth the risk to show his support for one of the most scarred, and suffering, corners of his church. Other popes have dreamed of visiting Iraq, which has an ancient but battered and shrunken Christian community, but Francis was the first to go, furthering his grand project of forging closer ties with the Muslim world and reasserting himself on the global stage after a year of lockdown.

But even as he succeeded in drawing attention to and showing support for the church in Iraq, there remained a lingering concern over the eventual cost.

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