Pope Francis met Christians on Sunday in an ancient church torched by the ISIS terror group when it swept into the northern Iraqi town of Qaraqosh in 2014. After the militants were ousted from the town in 2016, the Al-Tahera (Immaculate Conception) Church’s imposing marble floors and columns were restored and the faithful gathered there on Sunday to welcome the pontiff.
Earlier, hundreds of residents dressed in colorful traditional robes and waving olive branches, flags and balloons lined the streets to wait for the pope.
Pope Francis' visit was part of a four-day tour of the country that aims to boost the morale of the country’s small Christian communities.
Since the ISIS militants were driven out in 2017, families have slowly returned to Qaraqosh and rebuilt homes that were left in ruins by the extremist group and the fighting that ousted them.
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 US invasion of 2003 and the Islamist militant violence that followed.
The roads in and around Qaraqosh were sprinkled with checkpoints and armed officers. Earlier in the day, Muslim and Christian residents of Mosul told Pope Francis of their lives under the brutal rule of the ISIS militant group as the pontiff blessed their vow to rise up from ashes, telling them that “fraternity is more durable than fratricide”.
Pope Francis flew into Mosul by helicopter to encourage the binding of sectarian wounds and to pray for the dead of any religion. The 84-year-old pope walked past ruins of houses and churches to a square that was once the thriving centre of the old town. The northern city was occupied from 2014 to 2017 by ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“Together we say no to fundamentalism. No to sectarianism and no to corruption,” the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul Najeeb Michaeel told the pope.
Pope Francis sat on a white chair surrounded by skeletons of buildings and dangling staircases. Corruption and infighting among Iraqi politicians still slow efforts to rebuild Mosul and large parts of the city remain in ruins.
The pope, visibly moved by the devastation around him, prayed for all of Mosul’s dead. “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 and others – forcibly displaced or killed,” he said.
“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 pope said.
The pope, blanketed in intense security on his trip to Iraq, has stressed religious tolerance. On Saturday, he held a historic meeting with Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric and visited the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, condemning violence in the name of God as “the greatest blasphemy”.
On Sunday, the Pope said Mass in Erbil, capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region, where thousands of people packed a stadium. At the end of the Mass, the last official event before the Pope returns to Rome on Monday, he told the crowd, “Iraq will always remain with me, in my heart”. He closed by saying: “Salam, salam, salam”, which means peace, peace, peace in Arabic.