After whirlwind historic visit, Pope leaves Iraq for Rome
Pope Francis on Monday wrapped up his historic whirlwind Iraq tour that sought to bring hope to the country's marginalized Christian minority with messages of coexistence, forgiveness, and peace. The pontiff and his traveling delegation were to be seen-off with a farewell ceremony at Baghdad Airport, from where he will leave for Rome following the four-day papal visit that covered five provinces across Iraq.
Francis urged Iraqis to embrace diversity
At every turn, 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. At Nineveh, he met with Christian victims of the Islamic State group's terror and heard their testimonies of survival.
People gathered to see the Pope, few wore facemasks
People gathered in crowds to catch a glimpse of the Pope wherever he went, fueling coronavirus concerns. Few wore facemasks, especially during Francis' stops in northern Iraq on Sunday. That day ended with an open-air mass in a stadium that drew nearly 10,000 people. Security was tight and most events were strictly controlled.
Pope, delegation members have been vaccinated against COVID-19
Public health experts expressed concerns ahead of the trip that large gatherings could serve as superspreader events for COVID-19 in a country suffering from an outbreak where few have been vaccinated. Pope and members of his delegation have been vaccinated but most Iraqis have not.
Iraq in the midst of another wave of the coronavirus
Iraq is in the midst of another wave of the coronavirus, spurred by a new, more infectious strain that first appeared in the UK. Authorities in Iraq recorded 4,068 new infections on March 6, according to the Health Ministry figures, up significantly from infection rates at the start of the year. In total 13,500 people have died among a total of 720,000 infections.