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Pope sends envoy to Iraq to deliver message of support and aid embattled Christians

Pope Francis is dispatching Cardinal Fernando Filoni as his personal envoy to northern Iraq, where Islamist militias have sent thousands of Christians and other religious minorities fleeing for their lives, the Vatican said Friday.

The Vatican announced the appointment of Filoni, a former papal nuncio to Iraq and Jordan, only a day after the pope launched a fresh appeal for the welfare of Christians affected by the violence there.

In two separate tweets Friday, the pope also urged people of goodwill to "take a moment" to pray for all those forced from their homes in Iraq and in particular the Iraqi Christians and the vulnerable.

The Vatican's chief spokesman, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, said Filoni would leave in the next few days for Iraqi Kurdistan, amid reports that as many as 100,000 Christians have been forced from their homes by militants from the Islamic State.

"The pope wanted to mobilize, given the serious ongoing emergency," Lombardi said.

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Filoni is expected to deliver a personal message of solidarity and support from the pope as well as financial aid to those affected by the wave of violence.

"It is too early to say when he will leave and what his itinerary will be," Lombardi told journalists. "The mission is still being prepared."

Iraqi authorities this week reported that the Islamic State militia kidnapped hundreds of women and girls from the Yazidi religious minority after invading the northwestern town of Sinjar.

The pope also called on all nuncios, or ambassadors to foreign governments, in the region to convey his message to local authorities and churches. The nuncios are expected to be called to a meeting in Rome in September, Lombardi said.

Filoni, who comes from the southern Italian town of Taranto, was papal nuncio to Jordan and Iraq from 2001 to 2006 and remained in Baghdad throughout the allied invasion and years of occupation. He now heads the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

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