Exultant crowds gather for pope's Erbil Mass, despite coronavirus

Pope Francis arrives to lead a mass at the Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil, Iraq March 7, 2021. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Coronavirus was the last thing on schoolteacher Gladys Koffa's mind as she waited eagerly for Pope Francis to say Mass at Franso Hariri stadium in Erbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, on Sunday.

"We’re not thinking about corona at a time like this it's special, we have God on our sides because the pope is here!" the 33-year-old said, surrounded by her teenage students.

At least 10,000 people filed into the stadium for Mass, waving Iraqi, Kurdish and Vatican City flags to blaring music. The stadium has a capacity of 30,000 people but organizers limited attendance to 10,000 as a protective measure to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Volunteers also checked the temperatures of those entering the stadium as they disembarked from buses, but once inside many of the attendees could be seen not wearing protective facemasks.

"I've been eagerly waiting for the pope to come since the fist day he announced he was coming here," said Elian Syauish, a university student and one such attendee not wearing a mask.

"We hope that he brings peace to Iraq and social harmony and an end to wars."

The Mass was the pope's final engagement on his whirlwind four-day visit to Iraq aimed at boosting the morale of the country's small Christian communities and urging peaceful coexistence between religions.

Iraq's Christian community, one of the oldest in the world, has been particularly devastated by the country's years of conflict, falling to about 300,000 from about 1.5 million before the U.S. invasion of 2003 and the brutal Islamist militant violence that followed.

"People have taken precautions and the organising committee promoted awareness of corona, it's still a risk to come here but seeing Pope Francis is our dream come true and we're honoured that he's visited Iraq at a time when it's suffered so much from COVID," said Nashwan Francis.

The pope and his entourage on the trip have had coronavirus vaccinations.

The Iraqi Health Ministry said it registered a total of 3,359 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, including 256 in the Kurdish region. Overall, Iraq has recorded 726,548 cases and 13,572 deaths.

(Reporting by Michael Georgy in Erbil; Writing by Nadine Awadalla; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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