Pope weighed Iraq virus risk but believes God will protect

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Pope Francis speaks to journalists, Monday, March 8, 2021, while flying back to The Vatican at the end of his four-day trip to Iraq where he met with different Christian communities and Shiite revered cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. At right pope's spokesperson Matteo Bruni. (AP Photo/Yara Nardi, pool)

BAGHDAD – Pope Francis said Monday he weighed the risks of a high-profile trip to Iraq during the coronavirus pandemic, but said he decided to go ahead with it after much prayer and belief that God would look out for the Iraqis who might get exposed.

Francis described his decision-making process en route home from Iraq amid concerns that his four-day visit, which featured oftentimes maskless crowds in packed churches, singing — could result in the spread of infections in a country with a fragile health care system and a sustained surge in new cases.

Francis said the idea of a trip “cooks over time in my conscience,” and that the pandemic was the issue that weighed most heavily on him. Francis has experienced close-up the ravages of COVID-19 in Europe given Italy has had one of the worst outbreaks in the world, with the official death toll soon to hit 100,000.

“I prayed a lot about this. And in the end I took the decision freely,” Francis said. “It came from inside. I said ‘He who makes me decide this way will look after the people.’”

“I took the decision this way, but after prayer and knowing the risks,” he said.

Francis on Monday wrapped up the first-ever papal trip to Iraq, which was aimed at bringing hope to the country’s marginalized Christian minority while boosting relations with the Shiite Muslim world.

At every turn of his trip, 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 and heard their testimonies of survival.

But at every turn he also experienced crowds that often ignored social distancing norms and mask requirements, even though the Vatican and Iraqi church officials had promised anti-virus measures would be enforced.