Significant other risks also attend the visit, long desired by Pope Francis and highly anticipated by the sorely tried people of the country.
— Rome — The Apostolic Nuncio to Iraq, Archbishop Mitja Leskovar, has tested positive for coronavirus and is in isolation at a site removed from the nunciature — the Vatican embassy — in Baghdad. The Catholic Herald confirmed the news with sources inside the Vatican, after Italy’s ADNKronos agency reported the news on Saturday. One source with knowledge of the situation told the Herald on Sunday that part of the staff at the nunciature is also in quarantine, while they await results of testing.
Pope Francis is scheduled to travel to Iraq this coming weekend, March 5-8. Health and security concerns could still cause a delay, but sources inside the Vatican tell the Herald the visit is still on. Pope Francis has long desired to make the trip, and will be the first reigning pope to visit the country, in which the birthplace of Abraham is located and an ancient Christian presence is seriously threatened.
In addition to tightened coronavirus measures put in place after the pope’s visit was announced, there have been several attacks reported.
On Saturday, the Prime Minister of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan region, Masrour Barzani, told France24 that a February 15 rocket attack on a US base in Erbil — inside the semiautonomous region in northern Iraq where Pope Francis is scheduled to visit — was “deifnitely a terrorist attack” and “designed to destabilize the Kurdistan region. Barzani did not assign responsibility for the incident, in which one contractor and one civilian perished and seven people were wounded, saying the investigation is ongoing.
Many thousands of Iraqi Christians found safety and refuge in Erbil and other parts of the Kurdistan region, which — despite great trials and limited means — did much to welcome and succor them in their need. “We are doing everything we can to make sure that [Pope Francis’s] visit is going to be safe,” Barzani said.
The US conducted strikes on Friday of last week in Syria, just across the border with Iraq, saying the targets hit were Iranian Shi’ite proxy militia connected to the attack in Erbil. “The US has obviously conducted this operation on credible evidence,” Barzani said, “but as far as I can condemn any particular group, I would rather wait until the investigation is done.” Asked whether he approves the US operation, Barzani said: “We support any effort to stop destabilization of Iraq and especially [the] Kurdistan region.”
Asked about the so-salled Islamic State militancy, which seized much of the Nineveh Plain just a few years ago during its ascendancy, Barzani said: “ISIS is reorganizing as we speak.” Barzani went on to say: “They have managed to recruit more people and have conducted operations against Iraqi security forces, and in some cases even against civilians.”
“ISIS remains a main problem,” Barzani told France24.
Barzani also discussed the Kurdish Workers Party — a Turkey-based Kurdish militancy that has found shelter inside Iraqi Kurdistan — and Turkey’s recent statement to the effect that it may consider creating a “safe zone” i.e. an occupation of Iraqi Kurdistan. Barzani said the PKK presence in his region has disrupted reconstruction efforts and even driven farmers and rural villagers from their homes, further contributing to destabilization.