On his third day in Iraq, this Sunday (7), Pope Francis visited Mosul, a city reduced to rubble when the Islamic State (IS) group, which tortured followers of other religions while maintaining control of the region for three years, has been occupied. . years.
Amid the ruins of houses and churches, in a plaza that was the thriving center of the city before it was occupied by the Islamic State from 2014 to 2017, the head of the Catholic Church addressed the people present and read a prayer for the dead of the conflict, repeating one of the main themes of his trip – extremes and violence are not tolerated in religion.
“How cruel that this country, cradle of civilization, has been afflicted by such a barbaric coup, with the destruction of ancient places of worship,” he said. Thousands of Muslims, Christians and Yazidis, he said, “have been cruelly wiped out by terrorism and others have been forcibly displaced or killed.”
Just like the day before, Francisco flew before dawn to what was once the third largest city in Iraq. After disembarking, his escort walked through the streets filled with soldiers, some waving Iraqi flags, but most carrying heavy weapons.
“The true identity of this city is the harmonious coexistence between people of different origins and cultures,” said the pontiff.
The square where it once stood was surrounded by four churches, used by followers of four religions – only the rubble remains. But the Pope called for reaffirming “the conviction that fraternity is more lasting than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace is more powerful than war”.
Less than four years ago, a short distance from where Pope Francis spoke in Mosul, the Immaculate Conception Syrian Catholic Church (Al-Tahera) was taken over by the Islamic State.
The church has been transformed into a courtyard. From there, the leaders of the extremist group imposed sentences of whipping, imprisonment and beheading on people tried for crimes ranging from smoking and music to blasphemy. Another church, visited by Francisco on Sunday, was used as a prison.
The old part of the city is only under reconstruction. Four years after the end of the conflict, workers still find explosives and bodies in the ruins of buildings.
Under the rule of fighters from the terrorist group, which was trying to establish a caliphate in the region, Christians were forced to convert or pay a special tax to the Islamic State before being completely evicted from the city.
Of the few thousand Christians who lived in Mosul before 2014, only around 350 have returned. Father Raid Adel Kallo, pastor of the destroyed Basilica of the Annunciation, recounted how in 2014 he fled with 500 Christian families and how less than 70 families are present today.
“Most have emigrated and are afraid to return,” he said. “But I live here, with 2 million Muslims who call me father and I live my mission with them,” he added, speaking to the pope of a family committee in Mosul that promotes peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians.
Currently, over 95% of Iraqis are Muslims, while only 1% identifies with different currents of Christianity.
Francisco then flew by helicopter to Qaraqosh, a Christian enclave that was invaded in 2014 and lied under the control of Islamic State fighters for three years before being liberated by state-backed Iraqi forces. -United.
The roughly 50,000 residents fled with the arrival of ISIS, and those who returned found houses burned and looted and churches severely damaged – about half of the population before 2014 never returned.
In Qaraqosh, he received the most tumultuous reception to date of the trip, with thousands of ecstatic people crowding the roadsides, waving palm trees and olive branches – a symbol of peace for residents, which in the summer of 2014 saw the arrival. of pickup trucks with black ISIS flags.
Most did not wear masks, despite the growing number of Covid-19 cases and the lack of vaccines in the country.
“I cannot describe my happiness, it is a historic event that will not be repeated,” said Yosra Mubarak, 33, three months pregnant when she left home seven years ago with her husband and her son, fleeing violence.
“It’s wonderful to see the Pope! I never imagined he would arrive in Qaraqosh,” said Munir Jibrasil, 66, a math teacher who left the city seven years ago with the arrival of the extremist group. “Maybe it will help the country to rebuild itself and ultimately bring us love and peace.”
According to data from Johns Hopkins University, Iraq is currently going through one of its worst times of the pandemic, but the coronavirus was the last thing on Professor Gladys Koffa’s mind as she waited for Pope Francis celebrates mass in a sports stadium in Arbil, in the capital. Kurdistan, a region partially autonomous from the Iraqi central government.
“We don’t think of the crown at a time like this is special, we have God on our side because the Pope is there!” said the 33-year-old, surrounded by her teenage students.
At least 10,000 people entered the stadium to celebrate mass, waving Iraqi, Kurdish and Vatican flags. The stadium has a capacity of 30,000 people, but organizers have limited the number of spectators as a protective measure to stem the spread of the virus.
Event volunteers also checked the temperatures of people entering the stadium as they disembarked from the buses, but once inside, many participants could be seen without wearing protective masks.
“I have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Pope since the first day he announced he would come here,” said Elian Syauish, a university student who did not wear a mask.
Mass was the final rendezvous of the Pope’s visit who, during the historic four-day trip, emphasized interfaith peace – never before has a leader of the Catholic Church visited the country to Muslim majority.
The pope has stepped up support for Christians in the predominantly Shiite country, urged Iraqi leaders to protect all minority rights and sent a message that he himself is back on the world stage after a year without leaving the Vatican because of the pandemic.
On Saturday, he held a historic meeting with Iraq’s top Shia Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. Then Francis traveled to Ur, one of the oldest civilizations in the world and where the sacred texts say that the Prophet Abraham was born – considered the patriarch of the three main monotheistic religions of the world: Christianity, Islam and Judaism.