In Erbil, thousands attend largest mass of Pope’s historic trip to Iraq
Pope Francis held the largest mass of his historic Iraq trip Sunday after visiting war-scarred cities to comfort 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.
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.
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 city was targeted just weeks ago by a deadly rocket attack, the latest in a series of strikes blamed on pro-Iranian forces…..read more