EXPLAINER: Pope's risky Iraq trip aims to boost Christians
VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis is pushing ahead with the first papal trip to Iraq despite rising coronavirus infections, hoping to encourage the country’s dwindling number of Christians who were violently persecuted during the Islamic State group's insurgency while seeking to boost ties with the Shiite Muslim world.
Security is a concern for the March 5-8 visit, given the continued presence of rogue Shiite militias. Francis, who relishes plunging into crowds and zipping around in his popemobile, is expected to travel in an armored car with a sizeable security detail. The Vatican hopes the measures will have the dual effect of protecting the pope while discouraging contagion-inducing crowds.
Francis’ visit is the culmination of two decades of efforts to bring a pope to the birthplace of Abraham, the prophet central to Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths.
The trip will give Francis — and the world — a close-up look at the devastation wrought by the 2014-2017 IS reign, which destroyed hundreds of Christian-owned homes and churches in the north, and sent tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities fleeing.
The trip will include a private meeting with Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered figure in Iraq and beyond.
WHAT IS THE VIRUS SITUATION IN IRAQ?
The trip marks Francis’ return to international travel since the coronavirus pandemic erupted, and it comes as Iraq is seeing a resurgence of infections, with daily new cases nearing the height of its first wave.
For months, Francis has eschewed even small, socially distanced public audiences at the Vatican, raising questions about why he would expose Iraqis to the risk of possible infection. Francis, the Vatican delegation and traveling media have...