Pope Francis said he is not sure whether his planned trip to Iraq in March will go ahead – because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
He cast doubt on the trip, which would be the first by a pope to the country, in an interview with Italy’s Canale 5 television station on Sunday night.
Pope Francis spoke about how his life had changed because of the pandemic and said he had to postpone visits that were planned last year.
“Yes, I had to cancel trips ... because in good conscience, I can’t be the cause of gatherings of people, right? Now I don’t know if the trip to Iraq can take place. Life has changed,” he said.
The trip, planned for March 5-8, is due to take the pope to the capital Baghdad, as well as Ur, a city linked to the Old Testament figure of Abraham, and Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh, in Nineveh governorate.
Iraqi President Barham Salih said last month that the visit would “be a message of peace to Iraqis of all religions & serve to affirm our common values of justice & dignity”.
The pontiff's visit to Iraq is vital to encourage Christians to stay in the country, because their number is plummeting, the head of Iraq's Catholic Church said last month.
Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans and head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, told The National the planned visit would remind Iraqis of the need for peace and coexistence.
“It will place an emphasis on the true meaning of brotherhood and citizenship; we are only family and it will encourage Christians to stay in the country and to integrate and build confidence between each other towards a better future. It will give hope,” Cardinal Sako said.
Pope Francis, 84, is expected to be vaccinated against Covid-19 this week. He said in the interview everyone who is offered the vaccine should have it.
Vaccines were "glimmers of hope in this period of darkness and uncertainty," Francis said in the annual "Urbi et Orbi" speech "to the city and the world".
"I call on everyone, on leaders of states, on businesses, on international organisations, to promote cooperation and not competition, to find a solution for everyone: vaccines for all, especially the most vulnerable and most in need in all regions of the planet."
The pandemic had come at a "moment in history, marked by the ecological crisis and grave economic and social imbalances", the pope added, saying that made it "all the more important for us to acknowledge one another as brothers and sisters".