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Pope's Timor-Leste visit depends on vaccination drive

Papal envoy warns the trip can only take place if a mass Covid vaccination campaign is a success
Monsignor Marco Sprizzi (left) and Council of Ministers chairman Fidelis Manuel Leite Magalhaes meet at the government palace in Dili on Oct. 14.

A senior apostolic nunciature official has welcomed attempts by Timor-Leste's government to vaccinate a skeptical population against Covid-19, saying a touted papal visit to the Catholic-majority country next year depends on it.

The comments came during a meeting between Monsignor Marco Sprizzi, the apostolic nunciature's chargé d'affaires, and Council of Ministers chairman Fidelis Manuel Leite Magalhaes on Oct. 14 at the government palace in Dili.

"We discussed the necessary preparations that are the responsibility of the government of Timor-Leste for the visit of Pope Francis which is planned for next year," Magalhaes said during a joint press conference after the meeting.

He said one of them was vaccinating the population against Covid-19, which is the main requirement for the visit to take place.

The Vatican has not officially announced the pope's planned visit, but it was made public by Sprizzi during a meeting with Timor-Leste Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak in July.

He said at the time that Pope Francis had expressed to him his desire to visit, saying: “I go, I go, I go to Timor-Leste.”

Pope Francis was supposed to have gone to Timor-Leste, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea in September last year. However, his trip was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sprizzi said a visit could only take place if most of the population is vaccinated.

Given that a papal visit always brings together a large number of people, a visit could endanger the population if many have not been vaccinated, he said.

Addressing widespread concerns over reported side-effects caused by the Covid-19 vaccines, he emphasized they were safe and urged all citizens to receive their shots.

"I don't believe those that say vaccines are unsafe and dangerous. If that's true, I don't believe 84-year-old Pope Francis would have wanted to be vaccinated. The Holy Father is vaccinated, as are the bishops in Timor," Sprizzi said.

He said the Church hopes people understand that a vaccination is “an act of love, an act of responsibility, an act of cooperation among all of us, to achieve safety and health for all.”

Timor-Leste's government is still trying to push forward a program with a target of vaccinating 80 percent of the 1.3 million population by the end of the year.

The widespread doubts over vaccines prompted the government this month to send all cabinet ministers around the country promoting them.

Sprizzi hailed the government's move, which has helped move vaccinations forward.

As of Oct. 14, some 66.2 percent of the population had received their first dose, up from 60 percent earlier this month.

The country continues to record a decline in daily new Covid cases, with only 111 active cases remaining. Since the start of the pandemic, the country has recorded 19,464 cases and 119 deaths.

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