Iraqi municipal workers sweep a street in front of a giant board covered with a painting of Pope Francis and set against the wall of the Sayidat al-Nejat (Our Lady of Deliverance) Catholic Church in Baghdad, on Feb. 26. (Photo: AFP)
The apostolic nunciature in Iraq has reported that nuncio Archbishop Mitja Leskovar has tested positive for Covid-19 less than a week ahead of the papal visit to the Middle Eastern nation.
"The apostolic nuncio has recently tested positive to the Covid-19 virus. His symptoms are very light and from self-isolation he continues to work for the preparation of the apostolic trip," tweeted Father Ervin Lengyel, secretary of the Baghdad nunciature, on Feb. 28.
The 51-year-old Archbishop Leskovar of Slovenia was appointed nuncio to Iraq in May 2020 by Pope Francis.
Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Iraq from March 5-8 when he will become the first pope to visit the birthplace of Abraham.
The trip is expected to boost the morale of a beleaguered Christian community in Iraq and the Vatican’s efforts to reach out to the Muslim world.
Archbishop Leskovar will be the main point person for the much-awaited trip as he will escort the pope to all his major appointments.
In a statement to Associated Press, the Baghdad nunciature said Archbishop Leskovar has mild symptoms and may be ready for the papal visit.
Experts like Iranian-born virologist Dr. Navid Madani, who co-authored a report in The Lancet last year over the region’s unplanned response to the pandemic, warned that the enthusiasm among Iraqis to welcome Pope Francis to “a neglected, war-torn part of the world might lead to inadvertent violations of virus control measures.
“This could potentially lead to unsafe or super-spreading risks,” she told Associated Press in a telephone interview.
The World Health Organization was diplomatic about the papal trip to Iraq.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the agency's technical lead on Covid-19, said: “It’s about looking at the epidemiological situation in the country and then making sure that if that event is to take place, that it can take place as safely as possible."
Pope Francis intends to go ahead with the visit and wants Iraqis to watch him on television to avoid infection.
The important thing, he told Catholic News Service, is “they will see that the pope is there in their country.”