Pope Francis Syro-Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation (Sayidat Al Najat) Iraq
Pope Francis delivers a sermon at the Syro-Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation (Sayidat Al Najat) in the capital Baghdad at the start of the first ever papal visit to Iraq on March 5, 2021. In an address to the faithful in Baghdad, Pope Francis expressed his gratitude to his fellow clergy for supporting Iraq's Christians, whose population has dwindled due to conflict. Image Credit: AFP

Baghdad: Pope Francis Friday honoured the victims of one of Iraq's most brutal massacres of Christians by militants by saying their deaths are a reminder that violence is incompatible with authentic religious teaching.

Francis was welcomed joyfully with song and a yellow and white flower necklace as he entered Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral, hours after he arrived in Iraq for the first-ever papal visit.

Francis was praying at the church, where on Oct. 31, 2010 extremists gunned down worshippers in an attack that left 58 people dead. Forty-eight were Catholic, and the Vatican is considering their beatification as "martyrs" in the first step to possible sainthood. Photos of the 48 adorned the altar where Francis spoke.

Meeting with Iraqi priests, seminarians and religious sisters, Francis said: "Their deaths are a powerful reminder that inciting war, hateful attitudes, violence or the shedding of blood are incompatible with authentic religious teaching."

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Francis noted Iraqi Christians had suffered during years of war, economic hardships and persecution. But he urged them to persevere "in order to ensure that Iraq's Catholic community, though small like a mustard seed, continues to enrich the life of society as a whole."

An aide helped the 84-year-old pope up the steps to the cathedral as it appeared his sciatica nerve pain was making it difficult and painful to walk. Outside, hundreds of Iraqi security personnel wearing black uniforms and carrying light weapons maintained a tight cordon, preventing people from wandering around nearby.