From The New York Times:
Pope Francis has said that he has canceled trips during the pandemic because “in conscience I cannot provoke gatherings,” but that the only thing that would stop him from becoming the first pope to visit war-scarred Iraq would be a new surge in infections.
That is exactly what has happened. A spike in coronavirus cases has prompted Iraqi officials to impose lockdowns. Shia authorities have suspended religious pilgrimages. On Sunday, the Vatican’s own ambassador contracted the virus and went into isolation. For good measure, suicide bombings, rocket attacks and geopolitical tensions have increased, too.
But, Francis, to the bewilderment of many, is intent on going anyway. After more than a year cooped up behind the Vatican walls, he will fly to Baghdad on Friday at one of the most virulent moments of the entire pandemic, sending a message that flies in the face of nearly all public health guidelines and putting potentially thousands of Iraqis in danger.
“The day after tomorrow, God willing, I will go to Iraq for a three-day pilgrimage,” Francis said Wednesday in his weekly address to the faithful, only hours after a new barrage of rocket attacks. “I ask that you accompany this apostolic trip with prayer so that it can occur in the best way possible, bear the hoped-for fruit. The Iraqi people await us.”
Francis was himself vaccinated in mid-January, and while he has come under some criticism for a refusal to wear masks in private audiences, he has called on wealthy countries to give vaccines to poorer ones, and called a refusal to vaccinate “suicidal.”
The pope’s entourage is also vaccinated, but there is anxiety among the pope’s supporters that a trip designed largely to bring peace and encouragement to Iraq’s long-suffering Christians has the potential to be a superspreader event. The possibility, and potential disaster, of the 84-year-old pope inadvertently endangering an Iraqi population with practically no access to vaccines is not lost on his allies back in Rome.
“There is this concern that the pope’s visit not put the people’s health at risk, this is evident,” said Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest and close ally of Francis. “There is an awareness of the problem.”