In last Iraq mass, Francis frenzy trumps pandemic fears

Agence France-Presse
In last Iraq mass, Francis frenzy trumps pandemic fears
A handout picture released by the Vatican media office on March 7, 2021, shows Pope Francis blessing people as he arrives in the popemobile vehicle at the Franso Hariri Stadium in Arbil, in the capital of the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region.
AFP / Vatican Media

ARBIL, Iraq — Amid the excitement to see Pope Francis as he held his last public mass in Iraq on Sunday, the hopes of the faithful outdid the coronavirus precautions of the prudent.

"I don't know why people don't wear masks," said Bayda Saffo, an Iraqi woman attending the Pope's largest mass of his trip to Iraq, gripped by a resurgence of Covid-19.

Authorities in the Kurdistan regional capital of Arbil had feared the open-air liturgy at the Franso Hariri Stadium would become a "super-spreader" event for the virus.

They restricted attendance by issuing a limited number of tickets that meant the stadium was half full, with around 10,000 people attending.

Saffo and her teenage daughter wanted to take extra precautions — each wore a double-layer of medical masks, a plastic face-shield and gloves.

As excited as they were to see the Pope, it was better to be safe than sorry, Saffo told AFP.

"There is a danger. We have a young cousin who died of Covid," the 54-year-old university professor said, who is originally from the northern city of Mosul, which was visited by the Pope earlier on Sunday.

But few around them were as equally well protected.

While the white chairs on the stadium greens were spaced out to ensure social distancing, those gathered in the stands were packed much closer together.

Few wore masks, and those who did pulled them down to recite prayers along with the 84-year-old pontiff.

"We already had Covid a few months ago!" said a young couple at the stadium.

Francis and his entourage have been vaccinated, but Iraq only began its modest inoculation campaign days ago, with 50,000 jabs distributed to medical staff.

'Nearer to God'

Iraq has documented more than 720,000 infections and more than 13,500 deaths — making it one of the nations hardest hit by the coronavirus in the Middle East.

Many observers had expected worse in a country, whose health infrastructure has been hit by decades of war and little investment.

Some believed that its overwhelmingly young population — with 60 percent of its 40 million people aged under 25 — had perhaps helped keep cases down.

Following a long lockdown last year, the numbers of new cases dropped to around 800 per day in late 2020.

But they skyrocketed this year, with 5,000 daily infections in the days leading up to the papal trip. 

To stop the spread, authorities imposed overnight curfews and weekend lockdowns, extended to include the entirety of the Pope's visit, which lasts until Monday.

It's not Iraq's first religious occasion under Covid-19.

In October, around 14.5 million Shiite Muslims gathered in the shrine city of Karbala to mark Arbaeen, which mourns the killing of revered figure Hussein.

During that event, many of the pilgrims were wearing masks, but pulled them down to kiss Hussein's mausoleum.

Yet Iraq did not see a spike in its official case numbers at the time. 

At the Arbil mass and an earlier service in Baghdad on Sunday, worshippers were served communion by masked priests, taking the bread in hands smelling of disinfectant.

Watching the Pope from the stadium bleachers, Saffo's 15-year-old daughter Maryam said she was far physically from the pontiff — but felt close spiritually.

"It's a big dream for us," she said. "He will help us be nearer to God."

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