Pope Francis in Erbil Photograph:( AFP )
On Sunday, the pope held the largest mass of his historic Iraq trip after visiting war-scarred cities to comfort Christian survivors of the Islamic State group's reign of terror.
Pope Francis on Sunday promised thousands who had gathered for mass in the Kurdish regional capital Erbil that he would keep Iraq in his heart.
Erbil, or Arbil, is the last public event of his historic trip to Iraq.
"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."
This was the largest mass of the pope's historic Iraq trip -- which he held after visiting war-scarred cities to comfort Christian survivors of the Islamic State group's reign of terror.
The pontiff was greeted by thousands when he arrived at the sports stadium in the Kurdistan region's capital.
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.
Erbil has been a place of refuge for many Christians who fled violence over the years, including the onslaught from 2014 by the Islamic State group.
The heaviest deployment of security personnel yet is protecting Francis in northern Iraq, on what is perhaps the riskiest day of his historic trip. The visit to the north embodies a cause close to the pope's heart: reaching out to Iraq's traumatised Christian community.
Pope Francis on Sunday first visited Mosul, the onetime bastion of the Islamic State group, still largely in ruins, and pleaded for Christians in Iraq and the Middle East to stay in their homelands. There, he said the "tragic" exodus of Christians "does incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned, but also to the society they leave behind".
Francis spoke to the faithful in the courtyard of the Al-Tahera Church, whose roof collapsed during fighting against IS in 2017. It is one of the oldest of at least 14 churches in Nineveh province that were destroyed by the jihadists.
The pontiff also held a prayer service in Qaraqosh, whose ancient church – named Al-Tahera, like the one in Mosul – was torched by the jihadists as they destroyed most of the town.
Pope Francis's trip to Iraq as a "pilgrim of peace" aims to reassure the country's dwindling Christian community, but also to expand his dialogue with other religions.
On Saturday, the leader of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics met Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric, the reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who agreed that Iraq's Christians should be able to live in "peace".
(with inputs from agencies)