Pope returns to Rome following historic tour of Iraq

Public health experts voice concerns around Covid-19 as crowds gathered to see pontiff

Pope Francis on Monday ended his historic whirlwind tour of Iraq, which sought to bring hope to the country's marginalised Christian minority with a message of coexistence, forgiveness and peace.

The pontiff and his travelling delegation were seen off with a farewell ceremony at Baghdad airport, from where he left for Rome following a four-day papal visit that has covered five provinces across Iraq.

As the pope’s plane took off, Iraqi president Barham Salih was on the tarmac, waving goodbye.

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 in the north, where he met Christian victims of the so-called Islamic State group’s terror and heard their testimonies of survival.

People gathered in crowds to catch a glimpse of the pope wherever he went, fuelling 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.

Public health experts had expressed concern ahead of the trip that large gatherings could serve as superspreader events for coronavirus in a country suffering from a worsening outbreak where few have been vaccinated.

The pope and members of his delegation have been vaccinated but most Iraqis have not.

Iraq is in the midst of another wave of 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 health ministry figures, up significantly from infection rates at the start of the year.

In total 13,500 people have died among 720,000 infections. – PA