Pope Francis has sought to encourage Iraq’s beleaguered Christians under threat from Islamic militants, saying they are the “heart” of the church and that the church is proud of them.

In comments translated into Arabic during his weekly Wednesday general audience, Francis said the Catholic Church is like a mother, and like any mother will “defend her defenseless and persecuted children.”

Thousands of Christians have been forced from their homes by Islamic State militants who have carved out a self-styled caliphate in the large area straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border that it now controls.

Francis has said it was legitimate to use force to stop the militants, but that the international community should decide how to do so.

He said: “The church suffers with you and is proud of you.”