Pope Francis arrived in northern Iraq on Sunday to pray in the ruins of churches damaged or destroyed by Islamic State extremists and to celebrate an open-air mass on the last day of the first papal visit to the country.
The Vatican hopes the historic visit will bring together the country’s Christian communities and encourage them to stay despite decades of war and instability. Francis has also delivered a message of tolerance and brotherhood among religions to Muslim leaders, including in a historic meeting on Saturday with Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Francis went to the northern city of Mosul, which was badly damaged in the war against IS, to pray for the victims of the Iraq war. In a scene unimaginable just four years ago, he took a stage in a city square surrounded by the remains of four damaged churches that belong to some of Iraq’s myriad Christian denominations and rites. A jubilant crowd welcomed him.
Isis invaded Mosul in June 2014 and declared a caliphate that stretched from the territory of northern Syria to northern and western Iraq. It was from Mosul’s al-Nuri mosque that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his only public appearance when he delivered a sermon on Friday calling on all Muslims to follow him as “caliph.”
Mosul had great symbolic importance for Isis and became the bureaucratic and financial backbone of the group. He was finally released in July 2017 after a fierce nine-month battle. Between 9,000 and 11,000 civilians died, according to an AP investigation at the time. Baghdadi was killed in an American raid in Syria in 2019.
Later, Francis will travel by helicopter across the Nineveh plains to the small Christian community of Qaraqosh, where only a fraction of the families who fled Isis’ attack in 2014 have returned. He will hear testimonies from residents and pray at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which was burned by Isis and restored in recent years.
He concludes the day with a mass at the Erbil stadium in the northern Kurdish semi-autonomous region, which is expected to attract up to 10,000 people. He arrived in Erbil early Sunday, where he was greeted by children in traditional costumes and one dressed as a Pope.
Iraq declared victory over Isis 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 witnessed a series of recent rocket attacks by Iranian-backed militias against US targets, violence linked to tensions between Washington and Tehran.
The brutal three-year rule of the Isis group in much of northern and western Iraq, and the grueling campaign against it, left a vast swath of destruction. Rebuilding efforts have stalled amid a years-long financial crisis and entire neighborhoods remain in shambles. Many Iraqis have had to rebuild their homes on their own.
Iraq’s Christian minority was particularly affected. The militants forced them to choose between conversion, death or paying a special tax for non-Muslims. Thousands of people fled, leaving behind homes and churches that were destroyed or commanded by extremists.
Iraq’s Christian population, which traces its history back to the early days of the faith, had already declined rapidly, from about 1.5 million before the 2003 US-led invasion that plunged the country into chaos just a few few hundred thousand today.
Francisco hopes to convey a message of hope, underscored by the historic nature of the visit and the fact that it is his first international trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Public health experts had expressed concern ahead of the trip that large gatherings could serve as “super-spread” events for the coronavirus in a country suffering from an increasingly serious outbreak where few have been vaccinated.
The Vatican has said it is taking precautions, including holding Mass outdoors in a stadium that will only be partially full. But throughout the visit, crowds have gathered very close, and many people are not wearing masks. The Pope and members of his delegation have been vaccinated, but most Iraqis have not.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism