ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE -- Pope Francis said Monday that he weighed the risks of a high-profile trip to Iraq during the coronavirus pandemic, but said he decided to go ahead with it after much prayer and belief that God would look out for the Iraqis who might get exposed.
Francis described his decision-making process en route home from Iraq amid concerns that his four-day visit, which featured oftentimes maskless crowds in packed churches, singing -- could result in the spread of infections in a country with a fragile health care system and a sustained surge in new cases.
Francis said the idea of a trip "cooks over time in my conscience," and that the pandemic was the issue that weighed most heavily on him. Francis has experienced close-up the ravages of covid-19 in Europe given Italy has had one of the worst outbreaks in the world, with the death toll having just surpassed 100,000.
"I prayed a lot about this. And in the end I took the decision freely," Francis said. "It came from inside. I said, 'He who makes me decide this way will look after the people.'"
"I took the decision this way, but after prayer and knowing the risks," he said.
Francis on Monday wrapped up the first-ever papal trip to Iraq, which was aimed at bringing hope to the country's marginalized Christian minority while boosting relations with the Shiite Muslim world.
At every turn, Francis urged Iraqis to embrace diversity -- from Najaf in the south, where he held a historic face-to-face meeting with powerful Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to Nineveh to the north, where he met with Christian victims of the Islamic State group and heard their testimonies of survival.
But at every turn he also experienced crowds that often ignored social distancing norms and mask requirements, even though the Vatican and Iraqi church officials had promised anti-virus measures would be enforced.
Francis, the Vatican delegation and traveling media were vaccinated against covid-19, while most Iraqis haven't been.
Infectious disease experts had questioned the wisdom of such a trip given that Iraq's latest cases are being spurred by the more infectious strain that first appeared in the U.K.
Iraq recorded 4,068 infections Saturday, up significantly from infection rates at the start of the year. In total, 13,600 people have died among a total of 731,000 confirmed infections.
In one of the historic highlights of the trip, Francis was invited into the home of the reclusive al-Sistani, among the most influential and revered Shiite clerics, and together they delivered a powerful message of peaceful coexistence and affirmed the rights of Iraqi Christians. The Vatican hopes the message can help preserve the place of the thinning Christian population in Iraq's tapestry of faith and ethnic groups.
Francis said he was "honored" to have been received by al-Sistani, whom he called "a great man, a wise man, a man of God."
"He was very respectful," Francis said, publicly acknowledging the rare honor the 90-year-old al-Sistani showed him by standing up to greet him.
"He never stands up for the greeting. He stood up to greet me -- twice," Francis said. "This meeting was good for my soul. He is a luminary."
Francis counted the meeting as the second major step forward in the Vatican's interfaith efforts with Muslims after he penned a landmark document on shared Christian-Muslim values with a top Sunni cleric in 2019.
Francis also shot back at critics who questioned his outreach to Muslims as a watering down of Catholic doctrine or downright heresy, saying, "Sometimes you have to take risks to take steps forward."
The next likely trip is to Budapest, Hungary, to close out an international Eucharistic conference in September, with a possible side trip to Bratislava, Slovakia, he said. Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest Peter Erdo later confirmed the visit to Budapest to Hungarian news agency MTI, while the Slovak Bishops' Conference said the pope's possible trip to Slovakia hasn't been confirmed yet.