CAIRO - Pope Francis celebrated Mass in front of an estimated 10,000 people at a sports stadium in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Irbil Sunday afternoon, following visits earlier in the day to Mosul and the Christian town of Qaraqosh. It was the final full day of the pope's much anticipated visit to Iraq to offer solidarity with the country's Christians and other religious groups amid ongoing turmoil of rival militias battling the central government and firing on demonstrators in the streets.
A choir chanted to a crowd of thousands of Iraqis, gathered to hear Pope Francis deliver mass at a sports stadium in Irbil, despite a minor rainstorm. Kurdish and Iraqi leaders, along with some foreign dignitaries also attended.
Francis urged everyone to help those who are suffering and in need.
Francis says that we must get our hands dirty, acting responsibly and not standing idly by, watching as our brothers and sisters suffer.
He added, "It is clear that the church is alive and that Christ is here among his holy people," going on to say, "This is one of the reasons why I felt compelled to visit you and thank you."
Francis said, "Iraq will always remain in my heart and I ask all of you to work together for a future of peace and prosperity that excludes and discriminates against no one." He also said, "Here in Iraq, so many of your brothers, sisters, friends and fellow citizens bear the wounds of war and violence...and only God can heal these wounds."
Earlier Sunday, during a visit to the Christian town of Qaraqosh, outside the northern city of Mosul, the pope blessed several young people who were in wheelchairs, amid chants from the crowd of "long live the pope."
In Mosul, the pope addressed a crowd in front of a badly damaged church, urging Iraqi Christians to return to the city and help rebuild it. Thousands of Iraqi Christians left the country after the Islamic State group gained control of vast swaths of northern Iraq in 2014.
A top church leader, Iraqi Chaldean Bishop Basel Yaldo, thanked Francis for his willingness to visit the country, despite the ongoing turmoil there and global issues.
"We thank you for your courage, that you would come here to our troubled land, a land so filled with violence, displays of endless disputes, displacement and suffering among the people, and that you would do this in this time of global pandemic and crisis...," said Yaldo.
Khattar Abou Diab, who teaches political science at the University of Paris, says that the papal visit is largely symbolic, given the precarious state of Iraq, the pope’s health issues and the COVID-19 pandemic.
He says that the visit is symbolic for Iraqi Christians, as well as Christians from other parts of the Levant, but it is mostly to encourage those who have remained behind, because it is doubtful that others who have emigrated to the West will return.
A choir sang Chaldean religious songs to thank the pope for his visit. Throngs also lined the road as his motorcade traveled through Irbil to return to Baghdad. Francis is due to fly back to the Vatican Monday morning.