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AFP
March 8, 2021

Pope celebrates largest mass of historic Iraq trip

National

AFP
March 8, 2021

ARBIL: Pope Francis vowed Sunday to keep Iraq in his heart, as he concluded the largest mass and final public event of a historic trip meant to encourage the country´s dwindling Christian community and deepen interfaith dialogue.

The pontiff celebrated among thousands of smiling worshippers in a sports stadium in the Kurdistan region´s capital Arbil, after visiting Christian survivors of the Islamic State group´s reign of terror. The 84-year-old was driven in his white, windowless "pope-mobile" into the stadium, where jubilant worshippers sat socially distanced on white chairs spread out on the greens. Others stood, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of Francis, in the stands ringing the Franso Hariri Stadium, named after an Iraqi Christian politician who was assassinated by extremists 20 years ago.

In concluding the mass, the Pope vowed to keep Iraq in his heart even when he returns to the Vatican on Monday. "In my time among you, I have heard voices of sorrow and loss, but also voices of hope and consolation," he said. "Now the time draws near for my return to Rome. Yet Iraq will always remain with me, in my heart." The faithful wore hats featuring pictures of Francis, and face-masks to protect them from Covid, as a second wave has driven up cases to around 5,000 new infections per day in Iraq. The stadium seats around 20,000, but large swathes of the stands were empty after authorities had trimmed down the allowed attendance in recent days. "It´s a special trip, also because of the conditions," said Matteo Bruni, the Vatican´s spokesman, who described the visit to Iraq as "a gesture of love for this land its people". Iraq's Christian population has shrunk to fewer than 400,000, from around 1.5 million before the US-led invasion of 2003. Arbil has been a place of refuge for many Christians who fled violence over the years, including IS jihadists´ 2014 onslaught and ensuing reign of terror. Dressed in traditional embroidered robes, hundreds of Christians -- who speak a modern dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ -- welcomed the pontiff with hymns and olive branches. "Do not stop dreaming! Do not give up! Do not lose hope!" Francis urged those gathered.