The Latest: Pope Francis delivers sermon in Baghdad church

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An aerial photo shows archeological site of the 6,000-year-old archaeological site of Ur during the preparations for Pope Francis’ visit near Nasiriyah, Iraq, Saturday, March 6, 2021. Pope Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday to urge the country’s dwindling number of Christians to stay put and help rebuild the country after years of war and persecution, brushing aside the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns to make his first-ever papal visit. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jourani)

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — The Latest on Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq, aimed at rallying the country’s dwindling Christian community after decades of war and unrest (all times local):

6:40 p.m.

Pope Francis is reminding Iraq’s Chaldean Catholics of one of the core tenets of the Catholic faith: that those who are persecuted, poor and mourn are blessed.

Francis honored Iraq’s persecuted Christians by celebrating Mass on Saturday at the Chaldean Catholic cathedral in Baghdad. It was the first time a pope has celebrated a Mass using the Chaldean rite that is known to most Iraqi Catholics.

Despite concerns about coronavirus infections, the church was full, stuffy with incense and a maskless choir sang hymns and chanted Scripture readings. Francis, who is vaccinated against COVID-19, did not wear a mask, but priests and faithful did.

For his sermon, Francis delivered a meditation on the Beatitudes, taken from Jesus’ sermon that in God’s eyes, those who are blessed are not the wealthy, powerful or famous, but “the poor, those who mourn, the persecuted.”

He said: “Love is our strength, the source of strength for those of our brothers and sisters who here too have suffered prejudice, indignities, mistreatment and persecutions for the name of Jesus.”

Francis is visiting Iraq to give a spiritual boost to its dwindling Christian communities who were routed from their homes by the Islamic State group and face continued threat from Shiite militias. Chaldean Catholics are believed to represent around 80 percent of the estimated 300,000 Christians left in Iraq.

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6:30 p.m.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says he is pleased to see the historic visit by Pope Francis to Iraq.

In a tweet, he says the U.S. believes his visit will inspire hope and “help promote religious harmony and understanding among members of the different religions in Iraq and around the world.”

Pope Francis is on a four-day visit to Iraq, brushing aside security concerns and rising coronavirus infections in the Arab country to show support for its shrinking Christian community.

He and Iraq’s top Shiite cleric delivered a powerful message of peaceful coexistence Saturday, urging Muslims in the war-weary Arab nation to embrace Iraq’s long-beleaguered Christian minority during a historic meeting in the holy city of Najaf.

6:20 p.m.

Pope Francis is celebrating Mass in Baghdad’s Chaldean Catholic cathedral, which was full of mask-wearing faithful despite concerns about possible coronavirus contagion.

Iraqi and Vatican church officials had promised social distancing and other health measures would be enforced during Francis’ four-day visit to Iraq, especially at his indoor events. Organizers said an estimated 180 people could fit safely in the St. Joseph’s Chaldean Church.

They crowded toward the center aisle as a maskless Francis processed toward the altar, flanked by other priests. A choir sang and incense wafted around. Francis and the Vatican delegation are vaccinated, but the majority of Iraqis are not.

Francis is in Iraq to encourage its minority Christians to remain and help the country rebuild, despite having endured years of persecution by the Islamic State, discrimination by the Muslim majority and continued threats from Shiite militias.

He went ahead with the trip despite rising COVID-19 cases in Iraq, which went into a modified lockdown in mid-February.

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5:15 p.m.

Iraq’s prime minister has declared March 6 a National Day of Tolerance and Coexistence in Iraq after Pope Francis’ meeting with Iraq’s top Shiite cleric and a landmark inter-religious gathering,

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has announced the declaration in a tweet, saying it was “in celebration” of the pontiff’s two events Saturday, which al-Kadhimi called “historic.”

The central message of Francis’ weekend visit to Iraq has been a call for the country to accept its diversity and ensure minorities equal rights. The pope hopes to ensure the place of Iraq’s Christian population, dwindling under years of violence and discrimination.

Francis met Saturday with Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf and attended an inter-religious gathering in the Plains of Ur, traditional birthplace of Abraham, the patriarch revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims.

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12:15 p.m.

Pope Francis is urging Iraq’s Muslim and Christian religious leaders to put aside animosities and work together for peace and unity during an interfaith meeting in the traditional birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, father of their faiths.

He told the gathering: “This is true religiosity: to worship God and to love our neighbor.”

Francis traveled to the ruins of Ur in southern Iraq on Saturday to reinforce his message of interreligious tolerance and fraternity during the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, a country riven by religious and ethnic divisions.

With a magnificent ziggurat nearby, Francis told the faith leaders that it was fitting that they come together in Ur, “back to our origins, to the sources of God’s work, to the birth of our religions” to pray together for peace as children of Abraham, the prophet common to Muslims, Christians and Jews.

He said: “From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters. Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion.”

He said there could never be peace as long as Iraqis viewed people of different faiths as the “other.”

He said: “Peace does not demand winners or losers, but rather brothers and sisters who, for all the misunderstandings and hurts of the past, are journeying from conflict to unity.”

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11:15 a.m.

Pope Francis has arrived in the ancient city of Ur for an interfaith meeting aimed at urging Iraq’s Muslims, Christians and other believers to put aside historic animosities and work together for peace and unity.

Francis traveled Saturday to traditional birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, revered by Muslims, Christians and Jews, to reinforce his message of interreligious tolerance and fraternity during the first-ever papal visit to Iraq.

The meeting was taking place in the shadow of Ur’s magnificent ziggurat, the 6,000-year-old archaeological complex near Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.

Francis’ interfaith meeting in Ur came after his historic encounter in nearby Najaf with Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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