Like many of us, Pope Francis has been holed up at home for the past year, with travel plans canceled thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. But the pontiff, who has previously cited fears of his visits sparking superspreader events, broke his quarantine on Friday for a three-day tour of Iraq—the first papal visit to the country. (Pope John Paul II cancelled a trip to Iraq in 2000.)
So, why in the world is Pope Francis going to Iraq now? Medical and theological experts are scratching their heads.
For starters, it’s not a great time for Iraq. Just Wednesday, at least 10 rockets targeted an Iraqi military base. And the Iraqi government is reporting 4,000 new coronavirus infections a day, close to the highest the country has experienced so far—though experts think it is undercounting cases. Vaccine rollout has been slow, and the country’s medical infrastructure isn’t strong enough to handle any surges.
Pope Francis will begin in Baghdad and end in Erbil, conducting meetings and holding indoor and outdoor Masses along the way. The government and Vatican say they are taking precautions to minimize crowds, and Francis received his coronavirus vaccine in mid-January But despite these measures, more than 10,000 people are expected to attend Mass in Erbil’s sports stadium. “It’s a perfect storm for generating lots of cases which you won’t be able to deal with,” an infectious disease control expert told the Associated Press. Even Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, said in an interview that the trip was “dangerous” but important, the New York Times reported.
“I don’t know why he’s decided to go at this particular moment,” says David Hollenbach, a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. “I know that he’s been hoping to go there for some time. And you know, he’s not getting any younger. I guess he’s decided that he’s got vaccinations and he’s able to handle it, so he’s going to go.”
Hollenbach notes that fostering Christian-Muslim dialogue, supporting the persecuted Iraqi Christians, and advancing peace efforts are all parts of the Pope’s agenda. Iraq holds great religious significance for Christians, whose claim to the land dates back millennia. Beginning with the U.S. invasion in 2003—and followed by attacks and church bombings by al-Qaida and ISIS–the Iraqi Christians have been chased out of their homes by violence. During his trip, Francis will visit Our Lady of Salvation, the site of a 2010 attack against Christians, one of the deadliest in the country.
Juliana Taimoorazy, founder and president of Iraqi Christian Relief Council, estimates that 1.5 million Iraqi Christians lived in the country prior to the U.S. invasion, and the U.S. State Department says that fewer than 250,000 remain. A lot of Iraqi Christians, she says, have lost faith in political and religious leadership and are now split on how to receive the pope. To her, this trip is “virtue signaling” that could have been done at any other time.* She thinks he should have made the trip years ago.
A private meeting between Francis and Iraq’s most important Shiite cleric, 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is the most anticipated item on the pope’s agenda. Though Sistani rarely meets with public figures, his word holds immense weight. According to Vatican sources, the meeting has been decades in the making and holds the potential to ease Christian-Muslim relations in the region.
Could this unprecedented—and potentially history-altering—meeting be the reason why the pope is pressing forward with this trip? Hollenbach doesn’t think so. “The meeting with Sistani is very valuable,” he said. “But it’s not as if he wouldn’t have gone if that hadn’t been arranged. It’s not the main occasion.”
“He’s chosen now as his time. Some spiritual leaders say, ‘God put it on his heart to go now.’ That’s what the church believes. And that’s the conversation that he’s had with the Iraqi government,” Taimoorazy says.
Just the pope being there, the Vatican insists, is occasion enough. And maybe, like the rest of us, the pope was just extremely eager to get away.
Update, March 8, 2021: This paragraph has been updated to clarify the number of Iraqi Christians in Iraq as well as statements from Juliana Taimoorazy on the pope’s visit.