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Vatican City – Pope Francis is ushering in Christmas with a late-night Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, while his deputy is traveling to Iraq to celebrate with the country’s long-suffering Christians.

The Mass on Christmas Eve is one of the highlights of the Vatican’s liturgical year. Monday’s service starts a busy week for Francis. The 82-year-old pope’s schedule also includes a Christmas Day message and blessing, a Dec. 26 prayer, New Year’s Eve vespers and a Jan. 1 Mass.

As Francis prepared to preside over celebrations in Rome, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin was in Iraq to celebrate Christmas with the Chaldean Catholic community, a clear sign of the pope’s solidarity. Catholics are among the religious minorities devastated by Islamic State-inspired violence that has driven tens of thousands from their homes.

Parolin met Monday in Baghdad with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. He is scheduled in the coming days to travel to northern Iraq to meet with Kurdish leaders in Irbil and to celebrate Mass in Qaraqosh in the Nineveh plains, near Mosul, according to the Vatican.

The Vatican has for years expressed concern about the exodus of Christians from communities that have existed since the time of Jesus. This year, Francis joined Orthodox leaders to decry what he called the “murderous indifference” of world powers to violence and suffering in the Middle East.

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