Pope Francis on Monday wrapped up his historic whirlwind tour of Iraq that sought to bring hope to the country’s marginalized Christian minority with a message of coexistence, forgiveness and peace.
The pontiff and his traveling delegation were to be seen off with a farewell ceremony at the Baghdad airport, from where he will leave for Rome following a four-day papal visit that has covered five provinces across Iraq.
At every turn, Francis urged Iraqis to embrace diversity — from Najaf in the south, where he held a historic face-to-face meeting with powerful Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to Nineveh to the north, where he met with Christian victims of the Islamic State group’s terror and heard their testimonies of survival.
People gathered in crowds to catch a glimpse of the pope wherever he went, fueling coronavirus concerns. Few wore facemasks, especially during Francis’ stops in northern Iraq on Sunday. That day ended with an open-air mass in a stadium that drew nearly 10,000 people. Security was tight and most events were strictly controlled.
Public health experts had expressed concerns ahead of the trip that large gatherings could serve as superspreader events for the coronavirus in a country suffering from a worsening outbreak where few have been vaccinated. The pope and members of his delegation have been vaccinated but most Iraqis have not.
Iraq is in the midst of another wave of the coronavirus, spurred by a new, more infectious strain that first appeared in the U.K. Authorities in Iraq recorded 4,068 new infections on March 6, according to Health Ministry figures, up significantly from infection rates at the start of the year. In total 13,500 people have died among a total 720,000 infections.