An Iraqi civil protection worker sprays disinfectant in front of a mural depicting Pope Francis in the Syrian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, Iraq, on March 2. Ameer Al Mohammedaw / dpa / Image alliance / Getty Images

Ahead of Pope Francis’ historic trip to Iraq on Friday, the Vatican says the visit will take place there despite the increasing Covid-19 infections.

“All precautions have been taken from a health perspective,” Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni told journalists at a briefing on Tuesday.

“The journey can best be interpreted as an act of love. It is a gesture of the Pope’s love for the people of this country who must receive them, ”he said.

When asked by journalists about the possible risks of the coronavirus spreading to Iraqis, Bruni said the Pope would “not encounter crowds”.

“He will be driving in a closed car and it will be difficult to see him from the road. But it’s worth seeing him on TV too, ”he said.

On Wednesday the Pope urged Catholics to pray for a successful trip. “I ask you to pray with me on this apostolic journey so that it may take place in the best possible way and bring home the desired results.
“The Iraqi people are waiting for us. They were waiting for Pope John II, who was forbidden to leave. We cannot disappoint a country (people) for the second time. Let us pray that this trip can be made well . ”

Pope Francis and his entourage have all been vaccinated against Covid-19, the Vatican said – despite the announcement by its Iraqi embassy on Sunday that its ambassador Mitra Leskovar had tested positive for Covid-19.

The Pope will stay in the Vatican embassy during his trip, the Vatican said on Tuesday. Ambassador Leskovar has been moved to another residence.

The Pope will visit Najaf, a site sacred to Shiite Muslims, where Muhammad’s son-in-law Imam Ali is buried.

Najaf is home to one of the most important teaching centers in the Islamic world, and this is where Pope Francis will meet privately with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most influential Shiite Muslim leaders.

“The importance of the meeting goes beyond the meeting itself,” said Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni on Tuesday.

Pope Francis has made dialogue with Muslims a cornerstone of his papacy. In 2019, he is known to sign a joint document with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, head of the Sunni Muslim Supreme Authority and University of Al-Azhar in Abu Dhabi, to promote peace between people of different faiths.
“The Pope goes to Iraq to look for his brothers and comes as a brother,” said Bruni.

In Qaraqosh, Francis will meet Christians at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, which was almost completely destroyed by ISIS in 2016-17. The courtyard of the church was used as a shooting range during the IS occupation.

The decline in the Christian population in Iraq is one of the main reasons for the Pope’s trip, according to the Vatican.

“I am a pastor of people who are suffering,” said the Pope in an interview with Catholic News Service last month about his upcoming trip.

In Ur, Francis will also meet some representatives of the Yazidi minority in Iraq who were killed and enslaved by ISIS in 2014.