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pope francis in iraq

Pope Francis departs Iraq after wrapping up historic four-day visit

Pope Francis concluded his four-day visit to Iraq on Monday, Iraqi President Barham Salih among those waving as the pope's plane took off from Baghdad en route to Rome. Francis, the first pope to visit Iraq and the first to meet with a grand ayatollah, ended his trip by urging Iraqi Christians brutalized by Islamic State militants to forgive and "not give up."

"You are not alone!" Pope Francis said Sunday in Qaraqosh, a Christian town in Iraq's northern Nineveh plains. "The entire church is close to you, with prayers and concrete charity. And in this region, so many people opened their doors to you in time of need." Before ISIS ravaged the Nineveh plains in 2014, Iraq had about 1.4 million Christians; now, there are about 300,000, Religion News Service reports.

The pope urged those Christians to remain, rebuild their lives, and use their influence to help create a country and region where people of different faiths can coexist peacefully. He also listened to the stories of ISIS survivors and ended the day with a mass in Erbil attended by 10,000 people in Iraq's Kurdish enclave.

Earlier in his papal visit, Francis convened an unprecedented interfaith meeting with Iraqi Muslim, Christian, Yazidi, and Mandaean leaders in the Plains of Ur, believed to be the birthplace of the biblical patriarch Abraham. He and influential, revered Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani later jointly promoted the rights of Iraq's Christian minority and peaceful coexistence.