Infectious disease experts are expressing concern about Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to Iraq, given a sharp rise in coronavirus infections there, a fragile health care system and the unavoidable likelihood that Iraqis will crowd to see him.

No one wants to tell Francis to call it off, and the Iraqi government has every interest in showing off its relative stability by welcoming the first pope to the birthplace of Abraham.

The March 5-8 trip is expected to provide a sorely-needed spiritual boost to Iraq’s beleaguered Christians.

But from a purely epidemiological standpoint, a papal trip to Iraq amid a global pandemic is not advisable, health experts say.

“I just don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Dr. Navid Madani of Harvard Medical School’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “This could potentially lead to unsafe or superspreading risks.”

Their concerns were reinforced with the news Sunday that the Vatican ambassador to Iraq, the main point person for the trip, tested positive for COVID-19 and was self-isolating. The embassy said Archbishop Mitja Leskovar’s symptoms were mild and that he was continuing to prepare for Francis’ visit.

Beyond his case, experts note that wars, economic crises and an exodus of Iraqi professionals have devastated the country’s hospital system, while studies show most of Iraq’s new COVID-19 infections are the highly-contagious variant first identified in Britain.

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