Pope Francis placed a Christmas Eve phone call to Iraqi Christian refugees who escaped the Islamic State group, telling them they are in his heart and that, like Jesus, they were forced to flee because there was no place for them in their hometowns.
In a letter to Middle East Christians earlier this week, Francis encouraged them not to abandon their predominantly Muslim homelands and called Islam “a religion of peace.”
Altar boys shake hands with worshippers as Iraqi Christians celebrate Christmas Eve mass in the Chaldean Church of the Virgin Mary in al-Qoush, northern Iraq, 7.5 miles from the frontline where Kurdish peshmerga fighters battle the forces of the Islamic State group. Many of the worshippers are displaced from their homes after Islamic State militants swept through northern Iraq in August. (AP)
A few hours before Christmas Eve mass, Francis spoke by phone to refugees in the Ankawa tent camp, near Irbil in northern Iraq, the Associated Press reported.
“You’re like Jesus on this night, and I bless you and am close to you,” Francis said. “I embrace you all and wish for you a holy Christmas.”
Those living in the camp were forced to leave their homes in Mosul following the Islamic State's takeover of the city this summer.
"Dear brothers, I am close to you, very close to you in my heart," Francis said, according to Agence France-Presse, which cited the Italian press agency AGI.
In his letter to Middle East Christians earlier in the week, Francis said, “[F]or many of you, the music of your Christmas hymns will also be accompanied by tears and sighs.”
He alluded to the Islamic State threat, writing of “a newer and disturbing terrorist organization, of previously unimaginable dimensions, which has perpetrated all kinds of abuses and inhuman acts.”
“It has particularly affected a number of you, who have been brutally driven out of your native lands, where Christians have been present since apostolic times,” Francis wrote, according to the Vatican Information Service.
He also called on Middle East Christians to help their fellow Muslim citizens present “a more authentic image of Islam, as so many of them desire, reiterating that Islam is a religion of peace, one which is compatible with respect for human rights and favors peaceful coexistence on the part of all.”
Encouraging them to remain in their native countries, Francis wrote, “[A]lmost all of you are native citizens of your respective countries, and as such you have the duty and the right to take full part in the life and progress of your nations.”
AFP noted that an estimated 150,000 Christians have fled their homes in Iraq.
Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako told AFP in Baghdad, "Particularly during this Christmas period, they need reassuring signs. They must be told that they have not been abandoned or forgotten."