ROME – Less than three weeks from Pope Francis’s highly anticipated trip to Iraq, the local government on Sunday announced new restrictions to try to curb the spread of COVID-19, which includes the closure of all houses of worship until the last day of his March 5-8 visit.
The measures announced include a total curfew on Friday, Saturday and Sunday of each week starting Feb. 18, and a partial curfew between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. Monday through Thursday until March 8.
The Higher Committee for Health and National Safety held a meeting Saturday under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, and agreed on several measures to try to address the recent rise in the number cases of a new coronavirus variant in Iraq.
The Middle Eastern nation has seen over 13,000 people die as a result of the virus that has put the world on hold, with over 600,000 testing positive. When the historic papal visit was announced by the Vatican in December, the statement from the Holy See press office noted that the preparations for the trip would “take into consideration the evolution of the worldwide health emergency.”
Terrorist attacks on Jan. 21, carried out by two suicide bombers in an open-air market in central Baghdad, the capital city where Francis is scheduled to land, had already raised questions about the viability of the trip, but the pontiff himself made it clear at least twice since then that he has his mind set on visiting the land of Abraham.
In a private audience with Catholic News Service Feb. 1, the Argentine pope did say that the trip was ago, unless there was a serious new wave of COVID-19 infections in Iraq.
Even if social distancing requirements mean most Iraqis will see the papal events only on television, he said, “They will see that the pope is there in their country.”
“I am the pastor of people who are suffering,” he said, before adding that if he had to, he would consider taking a regular commercial flight to get there.
St. John Paul II had every intention of going to Iraq in 2000, when he planned a pilgrimage through the holiest sites of Christianity, including the Iraqi city of Ur, birthplace of Abraham, but tensions in the region made the trip impossible.
Francis reportedly told the Rome bureau of the United States’ bishops conference news service that John Paul “wept” that he could not go, adding that he does not want to disappoint the people a second time.
Talking with the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See Feb. 8, Pope Francis said that his upcoming trip to Iraq would be an important sign of his concern for the region’s Christians, as well as an important opportunity to build fraternity through interreligious dialogue.
“In our time, interreligious dialogue is an important component of the encounter between peoples and cultures. When it is viewed not in terms of compromising our own identity but as an occasion of mutual understanding and enrichment, dialogue can become an opportunity for religious leaders and the followers of different confessions, and can support the responsible efforts of political leaders to promote the common good,” the pope said last week, hours before the Vatican released the official program of the first papal visit in over 18 months. The last time Francis left Italy was for his trip to Japan in Nov. 2019.
Pope Francis plans to meet on March 6 with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, leader of the country’s Shiite Muslim majority in Najaf, considered the third holiest city of Shiite Islam after Mecca and Medina. He will also hold an interreligious meeting with Christians, Muslims and Yazidis on the plain of Ur.
March 5 he will meet with clergy and religious at the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Deliverance in Baghdad, site of an Oct. 31, 2010 massacre by Islamic fundamentalists, who murdered 48 people, including two priests.
Francis is also scheduled to travel to the autonomous region of Kurdistan and to Qaraqosh, which, before it was invaded by Islamic State fighters in 2014, was home to Iraq’s largest Christian community.
Though not officially in the program, many within the local Christian community hope that either on his way to Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, or as he heads to Qarakosh in the Nineveh plains, the pontiff also will stop in Karamlesh, a town where Father Rasheed Aziz Gianni and three companions were murdered in 2007. The remains of the men have been prepared for a possible beatification and will be in Qaraqosh by March, in case the pope is able to make the trip.
If he were to make such a stop, observers have pointed out, it could have the visual impact of his stop at the Israeli security barrier during his visit to the Holy Land in 2014.
However, Sunday’s heavy anti-coronavirus restrictions may complicate the possibility of both scheduled and unscheduled visits.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma