Pope Francis departs Iraq calling for unity, peaceful future

(Updates with text about closing Mass, photos)

Erbil, Iraq, Mar 7 (efe-epa).- Pope Francis bade farewell to Iraq on Sunday after his three-day visit by celebraating Mass before 10,000 members of the Christian faithful in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, after which he issued a call for unity “for a future of peace” in the violence-torn Middle Eastern country.

The pontiff celebrated Mass in the country’s second-largest stadium, Erbil’s Franso Hariri Stadium, which can seat 30,000 people, although because of the coronavirus pandemic authorities decided that only a third of that number would be allowed to attend the religious service.

“Iraq will always remain with me, in my heart. I ask all of you, dear brothers and sisters, to work together in unity for a future of peace and prosperity that does not discriminate against anyone or leave anyone behind,” Francis said in his final message, which was interrupted several times by applause from the audience.

He also said that he would pray for this “beloved country” and, in particular, for “the members of the different religious communities.”

The pontiff referred in his message “to the Cristians of the different denominations, many of whom have spilled their blood here on this same ground.”

“But our martyrs shine together, stars in the same sky. From up there, they ask us to walk together, without hesitation, toward the fullness of unity,” Francis said.

The pope thanked the country’s religious authorities “who have worked so much for this trip” and all those who had prepared the visit and welcomed him with affection, in particularly the Kurdish people.

“In these days that I have spent together with you, I have listened to voices of sadness and anguish, but also voices of hope and comfort. And this is thanks, in large measure, to that untiring good work that has been made possible thanks to the institutions of each religious persuasion,” Francis said in his farewell message.

The Mass concluded the pope’s visit to Iraq, where he held historic meetings, including with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the top religious authority among the Shiites, and visited Ur of the Chaldees, where tradition holds that the Prophet Abraham was born.

On Sunday, the pope traveled to Mosul to pray for the victims of the wars that have plagued Iraq among the ruins of a city devastated by Islamic State terrorists and to Qaraqosh, where he celebrated the Angelus with the Christians who have returned to the area after the defeat of the jihadists.

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