Pope Francis has been forced to cancel trip to Timor-Leste over the new coronavirus outbreak, which the World Health Organization now recognizes as a pandemic.
The Vatican’s representative in Timor-Leste, Monsignor Marco Sprizzi, told reporters in the Timor-Leste capitol Dili that the pope had cancelled the trip “because he did not want his people affected by the coronavirus,” the Associated Press reports.
Monsignor Sprizzi specifically referred to the large crowds that would gather in the event of such a visit as a reason behind the pope’s decision.
Although the Holy See had never confirmed a trip to Timor-Leste, in January a prominent Muslim cleric said Pope Francis had expressed his intention to visit Indonesia, Timor-Leste, and Papua New Guinea in September.
The following month, diplomatic sources reiterated that Pope Francis had sought to visit the three states to help promote inter-faith dialogue.
Timor-Leste gained independence from Indonesia in 1999 following a decades-long rule occupation. The small nation has a population of just under 1.3 million people, 98 percent of whom are Catholic. Pope St. John Paul II visited the country in 1989.
Papua New Guinea, a predominately Christian nation which occupies the eastern half of New Guinea island, is 26 percent Catholic, according to previous census figures. The western half of New Guinea is a part of Indonesia.
Pope St. John Paul II visited Papua New Guinea twice with the first being in 1984 for the centenary of the arrival of the first missionaries in PNG. His next visit was in 1995 for the beatification of Peter To Rot who is believed to have been killed for his faith by Japanese occupation forces during World War II.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis held his first virtual general audience on March 12 as part of efforts to stop the spread of new coronavirus.
The general audiences are typically held on St. Peter’s Square, attracting tens of thousands of people.
Pope Francis, who has suspended all similar public appearances, said he felt close to “all the sick people who have contracted the virus and are suffering from sickness and the many who are suffering from uncertainty.”
The 83-year-old pontiff thanked medical staff and volunteers laboring “in this very difficult moment”. Italy is the worst-affected country in the world after China, with some 631 deaths and 10,149 confirmed cases.
The Holy See has also cancelled meetings and conferences, curtailed travel among staff and closed its museums to the public.