World Hesitant handshakes, masked smiles: a papal trip in pandemic-hit Iraq
Francis prepares first-ever papal visit to Iraq
Pope Francis is to start the first-ever papal visit to Iraq on Friday, an act of solidarity with an ancient but dwindling Christian community and a symbolic outreach to Muslims. At the time, Pope Francis endorsed military action against IS and considered visiting northern Iraq in solidarity with Christians there. Video: Iraqi Christians, decimated by Islamist violence, prepare for pope's visit (Reuters) Your browser does not support this video That trip never materialised, but Francis has kept a close eye on Iraq, condemning the killing of unarmed protesters during mass anti-government rallies from 2019.
Hesitant handshakes, smiles blocked by masks and a strict no-hugging rule: the first-ever papal trip to Iraq will be all the more memorable for the pandemic-imposed restrictions.
"I'll try to follow directions and not shake hands with everyone, but I don't want to stay too far," Pope Francis told reporters while en route to Baghdad on Friday.
But soon after he stepped off the plane, the Pope could not hold back, extending his hand in greeting to the Iraqi dignitaries waiting for him on the tarmac at Baghdad International Airport.
Why Is the Pope Going to Iraq Just as COVID and Rocket Attacks Are Surging?
ROME—Like people in the rest of the world, Pope Francis is clearly going a little stir-crazy staying cooped up at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. The globetrotting pontiff has been grounded since November 2019 when he visited Thailand and Japan. But if all goes to plan, Francis will hit the road again on March 5 with a four-day, six-city visit to Iraq, which has seen a spate in violence with three attacks on the U.S.-led coalition in the course of a week and a surge in coronavirus cases that sent the country into a strict two-week lockdown.
The 84-year-old Argentinian pontiff was vaccinated before his history-making trip to Iraq, gripped this week by a second deadly wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
At the airport, Francis stripped off his white mask -- matching his pristine papal robe -- to smile warmly at the children in folkloric dress who had gathered to greet him.
Following his lead, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi removed his mask too, as did the head of the premier's protocol office.
The anti-coronavirus measures have otherwise been strict.
Authorities have imposed a full lockdown for the entirety of the Pope's visit, leaving the streets eerily empty of the crowds that have typically welcomed Francis on similar visits.
Incense and ululations: Pope meets his Iraqi flock
In the sun-soaked courtyard of Baghdad's St Joseph Cathedral, members of Iraq's dwindling Christian community waited in solemn silence for a man they'd never dreamt they would see. Some of the women, who appeared to outnumber the men, wore dainty black or white veils, a sign of respect for the leader of their faith, 84-year-old Pope Francis. They sat on wooden benches decorated with bright flowers and fingered rosaries or small prayer books as they counted down the minutes for the pontiff to arrive. Then, suddenly, the quiet was shattered by shrill ululations as hundreds of hands spontaneously flew toward the sky.
The half-dozen prayer services he will lead in the coming days will have ticketed attendance to ensure social distancing.
The churches he will visit have all been sprayed with disinfectant by Iraq's civil defence teams.
At the Our Lady of Salvation Church, where the Pope addressed fellow clergy on Friday, masked priests sat about a metre (yard) apart on wooden benches.
One figure was notably absent: the Vatican's ambassador to Iraq, who tested positive for Covid-19 after spending weeks making papal preparations across the country.
The Pope usually stays at the nuncio's residence during foreign trips -- so to make it safe for his boss, Mitja Leskovar was whisked away to an undisclosed location.
Francis has a safety net in that he and the entirety of the press corps travelling with him were vaccinated with the Pfizer/BioNTech jab ahead of the trip.
Iraq just began its own modest inoculation campaign with 50,000 jabs gifted by China, which went straight to the country's medical facilities.
Some Iraqi officials, however, had already been vaccinated before the official roll-out, telling AFP in January they had received doses of "the Chinese vaccine", without revealing which one.
On Friday, Pope Francis insisted that all Iraqis should have fair access to vaccinations.
"This crisis calls for concerted efforts by all to take necessary steps, including an equitable distribution of vaccines for everyone," he said.
Pope Francis visits Iraqi Christians who suffered under IS .
Pope Francis, on his historic Iraq tour, visits on Sunday Christian communities that endured the brutality of the Islamic State group until the jihadists' "caliphate" was defeated three years ago. Pope Francis' trip to Iraq as a "pilgrim of peace" aims to reassure the country's ancient, but dwindling, Christian community and to expand his dialogue with other religions. The leader of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics on Saturday met Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric, the reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who agreed that Iraq's Christians should be able to live in "peace".