ROME — Slovenian Archbishop Mitja Leskovar, the papal ambassador in Iraq, who was supposed to accompany Pope Francis during his March 5-8 visit to the land of the two rivers, tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday and is now in isolation.

The news was first reported by ADNKronows, an Italian news agency, but then confirmed by several sources, including the nunciature in Baghdad, where Pope Francis is scheduled to reside during his three days in Iraq.

This will be Pope Francis’ first apostolic trip since he visited Thailand and Japan back in November 2019, and the possibility of the trip being cancelled due to either the coronavirus pandemic or security concerns has always loomed large.

Earlier this month, in a meeting with the Rome personnel of Catholic News Service, the news agency of the United States’ conference of Catholic bishops, he said that he truly wanted to make the trip and the only thing that would stop him would be a rise of coronavirus cases in Iraq.

Both the pope and all those traveling with him have been vaccinated, including the close to 70 reporters who will accompany him. However, those who are set to welcome him, including Leskovar, have not.

The prelate is now in isolation, no longer in the nunciature, and all the personnel of the Vatican’s embassy have been tested for coronavirus and isolated pending results. In the meantime, the nunciature has been thoroughly cleaned, and the Vatican has released no official statement regarding a possible postponement of the visit due to the latest developments.

Francis is set to become the first pope in history to visit Iraq, a place that had been in the agenda for both St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but negotiations in the first case fell through at the last minute, and the situation was never safe enough, between war and militias, for the German pontiff to visit.

During his four day visit Francis is scheduled to pray for the victims of war, deliver a speech to the local religious community, priests and bishops in the same cathedral where back in 2010 five terrorists murdered 48 people, including two priests, during an All Hallows Eve Mass.

Leskovar is not the first person involved in preparing the visit who has tested positive in recent days: Ahmed Al Safi, spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, who is due to welcome the pope in his private residence, also tested positive for coronavirus last week.

Iraq is going through its second wave of the virus as daily coronavirus cases exceeded 4,000 for the first time in weeks. 

Francis is due to meet al-Sistani in the southern city of Najaf, considered the third holiest city of Shiia Islam after Mecca and Medina.

The rise in the number of coronavirus cases, that is not far from the peak of 5,025 cases a day from late September, has forced local authorities to re-enforce strict national measures including a full lockdown on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

For the rest of the week, lockdown begins at 8:00 pm and ends at 5:00 am. Schools are suspended until further notice, and all houses of prayer, including mosques and churches, are closed.

The pope’s trip is meant to send a message of encouragement to Iraqis that are still grappling to recover from the war against the Islamic terrorist organization  ISIS while growing disillusioned with the current government.

During the four-day trip, the pontiff is expected to meet Iraq’s prime minister, senior religious figures, and members of the Christian-Iraqi community that endured deadly persecution and oppression under ISIS in 2014.

Beyond Najaf, Francis is expected to visit the Plain Ur, considered the land of Abraham, a patriarch for Jews, Christians and Muslims, and the Niniveh Plain, once home to a buzzing Christian community, today a place still struggling to recover from the ISIS perpetrated genocide against Christians, Yazidis and other minorities.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma