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Vatican says pope's planned Iraq trip is 'act of love' after criticism

Vatican says pope's planned Iraq trip is 'act of love' after criticism
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The Vatican on Tuesday defended Pope FrancisPope FrancisPope calls for easing of tensions between Russia and Ukraine Pope Francis asks Minnesota bishop to resign following Vatican probe Biden should look to 'Ostpolitik' to negotiate with autocrats MORE’s upcoming trip to Iraq, calling it an “act of love for this land, for its people, and for its Christians.”

The comments come after experts advised against the trip, saying it could endanger the Iraqi people due the unvaccinated crowds that will likely be drawn by the pope amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Associated Press reports, however, that Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni argued that the daily number of cases in Iraq is low in comparison to its population, noting that the country's population is predominantly younger people. 

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He also stated that events related to the pope’s trip would abide by Iraqi health protocols and would include social distancing and mask wearing, among other measures.

“An entire community and an entire country will be able to follow this journey through the media and know that the pope is there for them, bringing a message that it is possible to hope even in situations that are most complicated,” Bruni said.

The purpose of the trip is to encourage Iraq's Christian population, the AP reports, which was violently persecuted by the Islamic State group. The news service notes that this trip will also be the first papal visit with a grand ayatollah, Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani.

Pope Francis, his 20-person entourage and the dozens of reporters on his plane have been vaccinated, according to the Vatican.

Bruni also said the pope will be using a covered car for his travels, though he is set to celebrate Mass with an expected 10,000 people at a sports stadium in the city of Erbil.

“Perhaps the best way to interpret this journey is as an act of love for this land, for its people and for its Christians,” Bruni added. “Every act of love can be interpreted as extreme, but as an extreme confirmation to be loved and confirmed in that love.”

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Bruni acknowledged that there could be consequences to this trip, though he added "it is possible in this regard to measure also the need of the other (Iraqis) to receive confirmation of that love, consideration and attention. Obviously the pope also looks at this need.”

Iraq declared a partial lockdown in February as coronavirus cases increased, shutting down mosques and schools.

According to data from Johns Hopkins University, Iraq has confirmed more than 700,000 cases and more than 13,000 related deaths.