Hesitant handshakes, masked smiles: a papal trip in pandemic-hit Iraq

Baghdad (AFP) –


Hesitant handshakes, smiles blocked by masks and a strict no-hugging rule: the first-ever papal trip to Iraq will be all the more memorable for the pandemic-imposed restrictions.

"I'll try to follow directions and not shake hands with everyone, but I don't want to stay too far," Pope Francis told reporters while en route to Baghdad on Friday.

But soon after he stepped off the plane, the Pope could not hold back, extending his hand in greeting to the Iraqi dignitaries waiting for him on the tarmac at Baghdad International Airport.

The 84-year-old Argentinian pontiff was vaccinated before his history-making trip to Iraq, gripped this week by a second deadly wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

At the airport, Francis stripped off his white mask -- matching his pristine papal robe -- to smile warmly at the children in folkloric dress who had gathered to greet him.

Following his lead, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi removed his mask too, as did the head of the premier's protocol office.

The anti-coronavirus measures have otherwise been strict.

Authorities have imposed a full lockdown for the entirety of the Pope's visit, leaving the streets eerily empty of the crowds that have typically welcomed Francis on similar visits.

The half-dozen prayer services he will lead in the coming days will have ticketed attendance to ensure social distancing.

The churches he will visit have all been sprayed with disinfectant by Iraq's civil defence teams.

At the Our Lady of Salvation Church, where the Pope addressed fellow clergy on Friday, masked priests sat about a metre (yard) apart on wooden benches.

One figure was notably absent: the Vatican's ambassador to Iraq, who tested positive for Covid-19 after spending weeks making papal preparations across the country.

The Pope usually stays at the nuncio's residence during foreign trips -- so to make it safe for his boss, Mitja Leskovar was whisked away to an undisclosed location.

Francis has a safety net in that he and the entirety of the press corps travelling with him were vaccinated with the Pfizer/BioNTech jab ahead of the trip.

Iraq just began its own modest inoculation campaign with 50,000 jabs gifted by China, which went straight to the country's medical facilities.

Some Iraqi officials, however, had already been vaccinated before the official roll-out, telling AFP in January they had received doses of "the Chinese vaccine", without revealing which one.

On Friday, Pope Francis insisted that all Iraqis should have fair access to vaccinations.

"This crisis calls for concerted efforts by all to take necessary steps, including an equitable distribution of vaccines for everyone," he said.