Dressed in white, Francis took to a red carpeted stage in Mosul on his first stop of the day, surrounded by the grey hollowed-out shells of four churches — Syriac Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox and Chaldean — nearly destroyed in the war to oust IS fighters from the city.
It was a scene that would have been unimaginable years earlier. Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, was at the heart of the IS so-called “caliphate” and witnessed the worst of the group’s rule inflicted on Muslims, Christians and others, including beheadings and mass killings.
He deviated from his prepared speech to emphasise the plight of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, which was subjected to mass killings, abductions and sexual slavery at the hands of IS.
“How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilisation, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow,” Francis said, “with ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people – Muslims, Christians, Yazidis — who were cruelly annihilated by terrorism and others forcibly displaced or killed.”
IS inflicted atrocities against all communities, including Muslims, during its three-year rule across much of northern and western Iraq. But the Christian minority was hit especially hard. The militants forced them to choose among conversion, death or the payment of a special tax for non-Muslims. Thousands fled, leaving homes and churches that were destroyed or commandeered by the extremists.
Iraq’s second largest city, became IS’s bureaucratic and financial backbone. It took a ferocious nine-month battle to finally free the city in July 2017. Between 9000 and 11,000 civilians were killed, according to an AP investigation at the time, and the war left a swath of destruction. Many Iraqis have had to rebuild on their own amid a years-long financial crisis.
The Reverend Raed Kallo was among the few Christians who returned to Mosul after IS was defeated. “My Muslim brothers received me after the liberation of the city with great hospitality and love,” he said on stage before the pontiff.
Before IS, he had a parish of 500 Christian families. Now only 70 families remain, he said. “But today I live among 2 million Muslims who call me their Father Raed,” he said.
Gutayba Aagha, the Muslim head of the Independent Social and Cultural Council for the Families of Mosul, invited “all our Christian brothers to return to this, their city, their properties and their businesses.”
Throughout his four-day visit, Francis has delivered a message of interreligious tolerance to Muslim leaders, including in a historic meeting on Saturday with Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
But Christians say it will take real changes on the ground for them to be able to return and stay, saying they face discrimination and intimidation from Shiite militias on top of the economic hardships suffered by all Iraqis.
Qaraqosh resident Martin Auffee said he was overjoyed by the pope’s visit and appreciated that he showed he was with Christians as he urged them to endure. But the 27-year-old said many of the young in his area have grown weary of lack of opportunity.
“We don’t know for how long they can cling onto hope and continue to stay in Iraq because there’s a lot of pain, unemployment and uncertainty,” he said. “My whole life has been filled with pain, misery, war, persecution and displacement. Things are difficult for those living here.”
At Qaraqosh, Francis urged its residents to continue to dream, and forgive.
“Forgiveness is necessary to remain in love, to remain Christian,” he said.
One resident, Doha Sabah Abdallah, told him how her son and two other young people were killed in a mortar strike August 6, 2014 as IS neared the town. “The martyrdom of these three angels” alerted the other residents to flee, she said. “The deaths of three saved the entire city.”
She said now it was for the survivors to “try to forgive the aggressor”.
Francis wrapped up the day — and his visit — with a Mass at the stadium in Erbil, in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region, after travelling there by helicopter. An estimated 10,000 people erupted in cheers when he arrived and did a lap around the track in his open-sided popemobile, the first and only time he has used it on this trip due to security concerns.
On the makeshift altar for the Mass was a statue of the Virgin Mary from the Mar Adday Church in the town of Keramlis, which was restored after IS militants chopped off its head and hands.
Few in the crowd wore facemasks, as was the case during all of Francis’ visits in northern Iraq. The pope headed back to Rome early Monday morning.
Public health experts had expressed concerns ahead of the trip that large gatherings could serve as superspreader events for the coronavirus in a country suffering from a worsening outbreak where few have been vaccinated. The pope and members of his delegation have been vaccinated but most Iraqis have not.
At the end of the event, he met the father of Alan Kurdi, the boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach six years ago became an image of the suffering of Syrians trying to escape war.
“The Pope spent a long time with him [Kurdi] and with the help of an interpreter was able to listen to the pain of a father for the loss of his family,” it said.
Kurdi thanked Francis for his closeness to the tragedy and to the pain of “all those migrants who seek understanding, peace and security, leaving their country at the risk of their lives,” it added.
Alan Kurdi drowned along with his mother and brother when a smuggling boat taking them to Europe capsized off the coast of Turkey in 2015.
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