Pope Francis’s three-day visit to Iraq was a boon to the diminishing Christian community, a boost for the beleaguered Iraqi government — and a possible health hazard, as many participants found social distancing impossible and disregarded masks.
The trip, the first papal visit to the country, came at a vulnerable time. Iraq reported record daily highs of more than 5,000 infections this week, and its leaders have implemented curfews. The country’s vaccination campaign began only last week, and many Iraqis are wary of government health programs, so few in the population of nearly 40 million have received even a single shot.
The pope and his entourage were vaccinated, and the Vatican had dismissed fears that large events during the trip might spread the virus, saying that precautions would be taken to minimize risk.
But Iraqis are generally unaccustomed to wearing masks and many live and work in crowded conditions, so they are also unused to social distancing. When they gathered in large numbers to see the pope, mask-wearing was far from universal.
The virus is far more easily transmitted indoors than outdoors, but most Iraqis wrongly believe that there is no outdoor transmission at all. In some cities where the pope appeared, thousands of people jammed together in the streets to await his arrival. At services, choirs were generally unmasked.
At a Mass in the town of Qaraqosh, about half the congregation was unmasked. Another service, on Sunday, was held in a stadium in Erbil, the Iraqi Kurdistan regional capital. Church officials had said that about 5,000 tickets would be distributed, but Kurdish television reported that about 10,000 people attended.
In the streets of Ankawa, the Christian enclave of Erbil, thousands of people holding flowers and olive branches stood behind plastic tape strung between barriers, hoping to catch a glimpse of the pope as he drove to the stadium. Musicians played drums and flutes as children danced on the sidewalk.
The pope himself was sometimes masked, sometimes not. He did not wear one when first arriving in Baghdad. Photos and a brief video of a meeting with one of Iraq’s most revered and vulnerable residents, 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, showed neither the pope nor the Shiite cleric masked.
Ayatollah Sistani has not been vaccinated, with his office saying he wants to make sure others have access first. He has declared the vaccine religiously permissible.