Pope Francis made a emphatic appeal for peaceful coexistence in Iraq on Sunday as he prayed for the country’s war dead amid the ruins of four demolished churches in Mosul, which suffered widespread destruction in the war against the Islamic State group. Francis travelled to northern Iraq on the final day of his historic visit to minister to the country’s dwindling number of Christians, who were forced to leave their homes en masse when IS militants overtook vast swaths of northern Iraq in the summer of 2014. Few have returned in the years since IS was routed in 2017, and Francis came to Iraq to encourage them to stay and help rebuild the country and restore what he called its “intricately designed carpet” of faith and ethnic groups. For the Vatican, the continued presence of Christians in Iraq is vital to keeping alive faith communities that have existed here since the time of Christ. In a scene unimaginable just four years ago, the pontiff mounted a stage in a city square surrounded by the remnants of four heavily damaged churches belonging to some of Iraq’s myriad Christian rites and denominations. A jubilant crowd welcomed him. “How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, 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,” Francis said. He deviated from his prepared speech to address the plight of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, which was subjected to mass killings, abductions and sexual slavery at the hands of IS. Today, however, we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war.” The square where he spoke is home to four different churches – Syro-Catholic, Armenian-Orthodox, Syro-Orthodox and Chaldean – each of them left in ruins. IS overran Mosul in June 2014 and declared a caliphate stretching from territory in northern Syria deep into Iraq’s north and west. It was from Mosul’s al-Nuri mosque that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his only public appearance when he gave a Friday sermon calling on all Muslims to follow him as “caliph.” Mosul held deep symbolic importance for IS and became the bureaucratic and financial backbone of the group. It was finally liberated in July 2017 after a ferocious nine-month battle. Between 9,000 and 11,000 civilians were killed, according to an AP investigation at the time. Al-Baghdadi was killed in a U.S. raid in Syria in 2019. The Vatican hopes that the landmark visit will rally the country’s Christian communities and encourage them to stay despite decades of war and instability. Throughout the visit, Francis has delivered a message of interreligious tolerance and fraternity to Muslim leaders, including in an historic meeting Saturday with Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The Rev. Raed Kallo, was among the few who returned to Mosul after IS was defeated. “I returned three years ago and my Muslim brothers received me after the liberation of the city with great hospitality and love,” he said on stage before the pontiff. Kallo said he left the city in June 10, 2014, when IS overran the city. He had a parish of 500 Christian families, most of whom have emigrated abroad. Now only 70 families remain. “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, encouraged other Christians to return. “In the name of the council I invite all our Christian brothers to return to this, their city, their properties and their businesses.” Francis will later travel by helicopter across the Nineveh plains to the small Christian community of Qaraqosh, where only a fraction of families have returned after fleeing the IS onslaught in 2014. He will hear testimonies from residents and pray in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which was believed to have been torched by IS and restored in recent years. He wraps up the day with a Mass in the stadium in Irbil, in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region, that is expected to draw as many as 10,000 people. He arrived in Irbil early Sunday, where he was greeted by children in traditional dress and one outfitted as a pope. 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 Vatican has said it is taking precautions, including holding the Mass outdoors in a stadium that will only be partially filled. But throughout the visit, crowds have gathered in close proximity, with many people not wearing masks. The pope and members of his delegation have been vaccinated but most Iraqis have not. Iraq declared victory over IS in 2017, and while the extremist group no longer controls any territory it still carries out sporadic attacks, especially in the north. The country has also seen a series of recent rocket attacks by Iran-backed militias against U.S. targets, violence linked to tensions between Washington and Tehran. The IS group’s brutal three-year rule of much of northern and western Iraq, and the grueling campaign against it, left a vast swathe of destruction. Reconstruction efforts have stalled amid a years-long financial crisis, and entire neighborhoods remain in ruins. Many Iraqis have had to rebuild their homes at their own expense. Iraq’s 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 behind homes and churches that were destroyed or commandeered by the extremists. Iraq’s Christian population, which traces its history back to the earliest days of the faith, had already rapidly dwindled, from around 1.5 million before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that plunged the country into chaos to just a few hundred thousand today. Source: National News Agency

Waving olive branches, flags and balloons and dressed in colourful traditional robes, hundreds of residents lined the streets of the Iraqi town of Qaraqosh on Sunday waiting for the arrival of Pope Francis.

Francis will visit the town’s restored Grand Immaculate Church – Iraq’s largest – as part of a four-day tour of the country that aims to boost the morale of the country’s small Christian communities.

The Christian enclave was overrun by Islamic State fighters in 2014, but since the militant were driven out in 2017 families have slowly returned and rebuilt homes that were left in ruins by the militants and the fighting that ousted them.

“I can’t describe my happiness, it’s a historic event that won’t be repeated,” said Yosra Mubarak, 33, who was three months pregnant when she left her home seven years ago with her husband and son, fleeing the violence.

“It was a very difficult journey, we fled with only the clothes we’re wearing … there was nothing left (when we returned), but our only dream was to come back and here we are and the pope is coming,” she said, beaming.

Mubarak now has three children, all of whom were wearing the traditional Qaraqosh clothes hand-knitted by her mother.

Speakers placed around the church blasted poems and hymns in Assyrian, one of which said: “hello hello in our town Pope Francis”. Ululations of joy rang out in the pauses between the songs. Nuns and priests danced.

The excitement had been building far ahead of the pope’s arrival. Some in the crowd said they had been there for hours.

Iraq’s Christian population of 1.5 million some 20 years ago now stands at 300,000, and many of those want to leave because they see few prospects in a country where Shi’ite militias and sleeper militant cells still pose a threat. Iraq has been torn by war since the U.S. invasion of 2003 and the Islamist militant violence that followed.

The roads in and around Qaraqosh were sprinkled with checkpoints and armed officers.

“We are very happy, but the moment he leaves everything will go back to normal. We lived through very three very difficult years. We left our homes with just our clothes. I didn’t even take my money,” said Samia Marzina, 52, holding two balloons emblazoned with the pope’s face.

Traces of burning inside Qaraqosh’s church have been were left untouched, a reminder of the fragility of the Christian community in Iraq.

 

Source: National News Agency