With the battle for major ISIS strongholds heating up in Iraq, Pope Francis has voiced his closeness to the country, praying for the safety of people on the ground, particularly civilians caught in the crosshairs of the fighting.

"My thoughts go out to civilians trapped in the western districts of Mosul and displaced because of the war, to whom I feel united in suffering, through prayer and spiritual closeness," he said during his March 29 general audience.

"While expressing deep sorrow for the victims of the bloody conflict, I renew to all the call to engage with every effort in the protection of civilians as an imperative and urgent requirement."

During the audience, which took place in St. Peter's Square, the Pope greeted a delegation of Iraqi Superintendents representing various religious groups accompanied by the President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran.  

"The richness of the beloved Iraqi nation lies in this mosaic which is unity in diversity, strength in union, prosperity in harmony," he said, encouraging them to go forward on this same path.

Francis also asked for prayers for Iraq that they might find reconciliation and harmony and "peace, unity and prosperity" among their different ethnic and religious groups.

His appeal followed a sharp rise this week in the number of reported civilian deaths in U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria as ground forces backed by the strikes are closing in on two of the Islamic State's main urban strongholds: Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.

According to the Washington Post, the reports have fueled accusations that the U.S. and its partners may not be acting with sufficient regard for the safety of civilians.

During his main address to pilgrims, Pope Francis continued his catechesis on the theme of hope, drawing attention to the close connection that exists between the virtue of hope and the virtue of faith.

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"Great hope is rooted in faith, and as such is able to go beyond all hope," he said, "because it is not based on our word, but the Word of God…When God promises, he accomplishes what he promises."

"I'd like to ask you a question," the Pope said. "We, all of us, are we convinced of this? Do we believe that God loves us and that everything he has promised us will be brought to fruition?"

All we have to do is have an open heart, and God will teach us how to hope and will do "miraculous things." The only price, he said, is to "open our hearts to faith and he will do the rest."

To illustrate the point, Pope Francis drew on the Old Testament story of Abraham and his wife Sarah, quoting the words of St. Paul in the Letter to Romans, that Abraham "believed, hoping against hope."

Despite the advanced age of he and his wife Sarah, Abraham, "did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body as dead (he was almost a hundred years old) and the dead womb of Sarah," who was barren.

We are also called to live this experience and example of faith, Francis said, adding that Abraham, "who, even before the evidence of a reality that seems destined for death, trusts in God, 'fully convinced that what he had promised he was also able to bring to completion.'"

Francis said this is a "paradox," yet at the same time is the strongest element of our hope. A hope, he said, which is "founded on a promise which from the human point of view seems uncertain and unpredictable, but which does not fail even in the face of death."

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"The God who reveals himself to Abraham is the God who saves, the God who has come out of desperation and death, a God who calls to life," he said. "In the story of Abraham all becomes a hymn to God who frees and regenerates."

And we recognize and celebrate the fulfillment of God's promises in the mystery of Christ's Resurrection at Easter, he explained.

Hope, then, is not something we can possess based on "human reassurance," but "it occurs where there is no hope, where there's nothing left to hope for, just as it did for Abraham, in front of his imminent death and sterility of his wife Sarah."

"Dear brothers and sisters, today we ask the Lord for the grace to remain founded not so much on our safety, on our own strength, but on the hope drawn by the promise of God, like true children of Abraham," he concluded.