Thousands fill stadium for pope’s final Iraq event

Thousands of people have filled the sports stadium in the northern city of Erbil for Pope Francis’ final event in his visit to Iraq: an open-air Mass featuring a statue of the Virgin Mary that was restored after Islamic militants chopped off the head and hands.

Organizers of the service say Francis will bless the statue, which was transported from the church in Keramlis, a Christian village on the Nineveh Plains, to a place of honor on the altar for Sunday’s Mass.

Keramlis, an ancient Assyrian town less than 18 miles (30 kilometers) southeast of Mosul, fell to Islamic State in August 2014, two months after the extremists took Mosul and surrounding areas, sending most inhabitants fleeing. In Keramlis, they destroyed the interior of St. Adday church and decapitated the statue of the Madonna.

Francis traveled to northern Iraq to encourage those Christians who have remained to persevere, rebuild, and ultimately forgive the militants who committed such atrocities.

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