ROME – Pope Francis on Thursday said in a session with Catholic leaders from Iraq that after a “painful and violent oppression,” meaning the occupation of Iraqi territory by ISIS, there’s still “much to do” to help Christians and other peoples of Iraq return to normal life.

“May your intentions remain strong to not give in to discouragement facing the difficulties that remain, notwithstanding what’s been done in the work of reconstruction in the Nineveh Plains,” he said.

The pope’s reference was to roughly 100,000 Christians from the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq, straddling the border between Iraqi- and Kurdish-controlled territory, who were driven from their homes in July and August 2014 when ISIS forces poured into the region.

Since ISIS has been driven back out, many of those Christians have attempted to return, only to find their homes and churches damaged or destroyed. A major “Nineveh Plains Reconstruction Project” has been launched by Aid to the Church in Need, a pontifical foundation supporting persecuted Christians, and backed by donors such as the Knights of Columbus in the United States and the government of Hungary.

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To date, the project has allowed an estimated 17 percent of Nineveh Plains Christians to return to their homes.

The pope also delivered a strong plug for national unity in Iraq, just days after an independence referendum in Kurdistan in northern Iraq delivered an overwhelming vote in favor of separating from Baghdad.

After acknowledging the harrowing challenges faced by the Church in Iraq – including the forced migration of Christians, the reconstruction of villages damaged or destroyed by ISIS forces, and the return of displaced persons – Francis called on church leaders in the “beloved land” of Iraq to be agents of unity.

The pope’s comments came in an audience on Thursday with the synod of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq, the largest of the several Eastern churches present in the country.

Francis told the Iraqis he’s praying that “the mercy of God will soothe the wounds of war that afflict the heart of your communities, so that they may finally be healed.”

The pope called on the Iraqi churchmen to be agents of unity.

“I exhort you to work tirelessly as constructors of unity, above all among you pastors of the Chaldean church and with the pastors of other churches, favoring dialogue and collaboration among all the actors in public life, to contribute to facilitating the return of the expelled and to heal the divisions and disagreements among brothers,” the pope said.

In the context of the Sept. 25 referendum in Kurdish-controlled territories, in which 93 percent of Kurds reportedly supported independence from Iraq, Francis appeared to call for holding the country together.

“There’s need for a process of national reconciliation,” he said, “and a united effort of all components of society for reaching shared solutions for the good of the entire country,” he said.

Francis recalled the ancient roots of the church in Iraq.

“Since antiquity, this land, evangelized according to the tradition of the apostle Thomas, has appeared to the world as a land of civilization, of encounter and dialogue,” the pope said. “Therefore, it’s of great importance that Christians, pastors and faithful, strong in those roots, be united in promoting respectful relations and interreligious dialogue among all the components of the country.”

From the beginning of his papacy, Francis often has recalled the challenges facing the Christians of the Middle East, insisting that there are more Christian martyrs today than in the early years of the Church. He was among the first world leaders to acknowledge ISIS assaults on Christians in Syria and Iraq as a “genocide,” well ahead of the U.S. State Department.

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Recently, leaders of the Nineveh Plains Reconstruction Project vowed that despite the new uncertainties created by the Kurdish independence vote, the effort to help displaced Christians return to the region will continue.