A nun applies ash to a woman's forehead during Ash Wednesday at Motael Church in Dili, Timor-Leste, on Feb. 26. (Photo: AFP)
Pope Francis’ plan to visit Indonesia and neighboring Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea in September is expected to be called off because of the coronavirus outbreak.
The Vatican’s representative to Timor-Leste told reporters in Dili on March 11 that the pope’s visit to the tiny nation has been canceled due to the fast-spreading pandemic.
Monsignor Marco Sprizzi, chargé d’affaires of the apostolic nunciature, said Francis had indicated his willingness to visit Timor-Leste this year but was concerned about large crowds, saying “because he did not want his people affected by the coronavirus, he canceled his visit.”
The Vatican has never confirmed that the pope would visit Indonesia, Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea this year.
Francis’ wish to visit the region was revealed by Yahya Cholil Staquf, secretary-general of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, following a meeting with the pope on Jan. 15.
Staqut, who was in Rome to attend an Abrahamic Faiths Initiative meeting which gathered Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders, told Catholic News Agency that Pope Francis planned to visit the three countries in September.
The only foreign travel confirmed by the Vatican for the pope this year is a May 31 day trip to Malta, but that is expected to be called off after Malta on March 10 barred all air traffic to and from Italy.
In late January, Indonesian President Joko Widodo extended an official invitation to Pope Francis to visit the Muslim-majority country.
In his letter, Widodo said he had been informed about the pope’s plan to visit the country. “With that regard, I am delighted to extend to the Holy Father, as the spiritual head of the Catholic Church, an official invitation to be our guest,” Widodo wrote.
He said a papal visit would further strengthen bonds between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia.
“His Excellency’s visit would provide very good momentum in strengthening friendship and cooperation for the sake of our mutual benefit,” Widodo wrote. "Please accept, Holy Father, the assurances of my highest esteem."
A 53-year-old British tourist has become the first Covid-19 death in Indonesia, international media have reported.
The woman already had several underlying health conditions including diabetes, hyperthyroidism, hypertension and a cardio-pulmonary condition, ABC reported.
She arrived in Bali on Feb. 29 and tested negative to thermal sensors at the airport, but within a few days she had symptoms consistent with coronavirus. She had contracted the virus abroad and died in Bali's Sanglah Hospital.