Pope Francis from Erbil: Church in Iraq is ‘alive’

Pontiff tells congregation in Erbil that 'Iraq will always remain with me in my heart'

Pope Francis leads a mass at the Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil, Iraq March 7, 2021. REUTERS/Ako Rasheed
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Pope Francis said on Sunday that Christianity in Iraq is alive despite the persecution and violence its followers endured throughout the years.

The pontiff ended his three-day Iraq tour by celebrating Mass  in the Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil, in the country's semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region.

"It is clear that the church is alive, that Christ is here in his holy people. I commend you, your families, your communities to the maternal protection of the Virgin Mary, who was united to her son to his passion and death," Francis said.

“That is one of the reasons I was compelled to come as a pilgrim, to thank you,” he said.

An estimated 10,000 people were at the stadium. They erupted in ululating cheers when he arrived and did a lap around the track in his open-sided popemobile, the first and only time he has used it on this trip because of security concerns.

“The Church in Iraq is already doing so much by spreading Christ's mercy and forgiveness. Even in the midst of great poverty and difficulty, many of you have generously offered concrete help and solidarity to the poor and suffering,” the pope said.

Pope Francis's visit to Iraq is meant to be a morale boost for the country's dwindling Christian population after years of war and the 2014 ISIS invasion.

Iraq's Christian community, one of the oldest in the world, had about 1.5 million members before the US invasion of 2003 but numbers declined to about 400,000 or fewer following the violence of ISIS.

During his closing speech Pope Francis said Iraq “will always remain with me in my heart”.

He urged the public to "work together in unity for a future of peace and prosperity that leaves no one behind and discriminates against no one".

Reverend Karam Shamasha of Nineveh, who attended the Mass, told The National, he is hopeful that the Pope's visit will bring Iraq prosperity.

"I feel enthusiasm, full of happiness, pride, and confidence in the wonderful works of God," he said.

The pontiff’s visit to Iraq has been heartwarming and monumental for the Iraqi Christian community, Zina Kiryakos, President of Iraqi Christian Foundation said.

"The Pontiff went into the eye of danger to show his solidarity with the persecuted Christians of Iraq and to ask the leaders of the country to help the religious minorities," Ms Kiryakos told The National.

Once Pope Francis leaves the stadium and Erbil, he will travel back to Baghdad where he will spend the night, before returning to Italy on Monday morning.