A soccer stadium in northern Iraq became a makeshift church Sunday as Pope Francis held mass for thousands of Christian worshippers who turned out for the historic opportunity, despite COVID-19 concerns.
The gathering at Franso Hariri Stadium was one of the largest public Christian services in the country in recent years, where religious minorities often have been targeted by radical Islamists.
The sports arena itself is named after an Iraqi Christian politician who was killed by extremists in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region, two years before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
“Today, I can see firsthand that the Church in Iraq is alive,” the Pope said in his homily, according to Vatican News, which estimated the number of attendees at 10,000.
Aiman Aziz Hormuz, a Christian pastor from the northern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah, led a group of his city’s Christians to board buses and travel for nearly 200 kilometers to see and listen to the pontiff in person.
“We are getting ready to go to the capital, Irbil, and welcome the Vatican pope, along with all other Christians of the Kurdistan Region,” Hormuz told VOA before attending the Sunday mass.
Christians were among the religious groups that suffered major atrocities carried out by the Islamic State (IS) terror group when it ruled parts of northern Iraq.
The papal visit was also welcomed by members of other religious minorities who have similarly been targeted by IS and other extremist groups in recent years.
“On behalf of the Kakais of the world, we asked the pope to advise politicians and religious men to set hatred aside and stick to the real message of their prophets, which is one of peace and tolerance,” said Rajab Kakai, a religious leader.
Kakai told VOA that he handed a letter to the pope detailing the plight of his people.
Most Kakais, numbering about 75,000, live in more than a dozen villages dotting oil-rich Kirkuk Province, a part of the northern “disputed territories” where experts say the Iraqi government is struggling to contain a rising IS threat. That area is contested between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the north.
The 84-year-old pope concluded his three-day visit on Monday after meeting the country’s top religious and political leaders and touring multiple cities, including the war-ravaged city of Mosul in the north.
The most notable meeting was the one he had in the country’s holy city of Najaf with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a widely revered leader for the Shiites in Iraq and beyond.
The meeting was widely described as a strong gesture for religious coexistence, promoting the Iraqi government to declare March 6 “the National Day of Tolerance and Coexistence.” The 90-year-old Shiite cleric said Iraqi Christians must be treated as equal citizens.
In Irbil, Pope Francis also met with Abdullah Kurdi, the father of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian child whose drowned body washed up on Turkish shores and drew international attention to the plight of Syrian refugees.
“The pope spoke for a long time with Abdullah Kurdi and was able to hear the pain of a father who has lost his family,” the Vatican said in a statement.
VOA's Kurdish Service contributed to this story.