MOSUL, Iraq – After the Islamic State took control of Mosul seven years ago and declared it the capital of its caliphate, the militant group vowed to conquer Rome, trying to quell fears deep in the West.
But the Islamic State pushed through the city, it was Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, who came to Mosul on Sunday. In an extraordinary moment in the final full day of the first People’s visit to Iraq, Francis went to the country’s wounded heart, directly addressing the anguish, persecution, and communal conflict that has torn the country apart.
“Now Rome is here,” said Ghazwan Yusuf Baho, a local priest who invited the French people to Mosul, saying they were waiting for the pope to arrive. “He will bring his blessings to spread peace and brotherhood. This is the beginning of a new era. “
Others have dreamed of going to Iraq, but Francis is the first person to visit. In doing so, he sought to protect an ancient but battered and shrunken Christian community after being frozen for more than a year due to the coronovirus epidemic, building ties with the Muslim world and reorganizing itself on the global stage Has
After a prayer in Mosul for the dead, Francis went to the northern cities, where many Christians now live, visiting a church filled with jubilant – and often faithful – tribesmen in Qaraqosh, home to the nation’s largest Christian population.
He marched into Iraqi Kurdistan in a long and heavily armed convoy guarded by helicopters. It headed to the refugee camps Erbil in the past, where they ended a day of mass celebrations for thousands of people at a stadium. There too, the horrors of social distancing restrictions raised concerns that the Pope’s attempts to be close to his flock could threaten him.
But many Iraqi Christians have said that the opportunity to seek comfort and healing after years of incurable suffering increased the risk of contagion. The country’s trauma and Francis’ efforts to fix it were on full display in Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city.
The Pope arrived by helicopter. Beneath it, the hollow shells of mortar buildings and the rubble of houses were spread like a huge mine. Fighting between Islamic State militants and US-backed Iraqi forces essentially leveled the once vibrant and diverse city, killing thousands of civilians.
“Welcomes Mosul” You read the poster covering the walls, which are so clogged with bullet holes that it looked as if the rash had burst. The iron forged railings were broken from the ruined buildings.
Francis spoke in a public square, surrounded by four churches of various Christian denominations, all badly damaged or destroyed.
Children dressed in white and teenagers waving olive branches formed a corridor for the Pope’s arrival, and a chorus in traditional attire boiled loudly.
“The real identity of this city is the harmonious coexistence between people of different backgrounds and cultures,” Francis said, adding that the shrinking of the Christian population in Mosul – one of the oldest communities of its kind in the world – And on the other hand, the Middle East “caused irreparable harm not only to the individuals and communities concerned, but also to the society they left behind.”
Francis said, “How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, must have suffered from a barbarous trauma in which ancient places of worship were destroyed.” Thousands of Muslims, Christians and Yazidis said, “Terrorism was brutally eliminated, and others were forcibly displaced or killed.”
After the 2003 US leadership, and in 2014 Mosul’s once-large Christian population declined to a few thousand. ISIS expelled those who remained. Only about 350 Christians have returned since ISIS was ousted in 2017 – almost all of them from the more affluent east side, which suffered very little damage.
“I especially welcome, then, your invitation to the Christian community to return to Mosul,” said Francis, who has praised young volunteers, Muslims and Christians for rebuilding the church and mosques.
“I’m sure it will be the first step for him to come back,” said Muslim engineer Anas Zaid, who was part of an international project to rebuild the church. He said Christians who had fled the city “have memories, they have Muslim friends, they have homes here.”
After praying for the dead, and for the remorse of his killers, Francis, who suffers from sciatica and limbs, took a golf cart to the Syriac Catholic Church that ISIS used as a courtyard. On the way, he passed a cartoon mural to play three girls, their faces turned black. ISIS forbids depictions of people and animals.
“We were all living in Mosul, Christians, Muslims,” said 37-year-old Christian and pediatrician Rana Bazoye, who fled Mosul before the ISIS took over in 2014. Returned to the city, the Pope’s visit may improve things further. “Why not?” he said. “We stayed together for a long time in Mosul.”
In his vortex journey, Francis has sought to make significant progress in strengthening the relationship between his church and the Muslim world. On Saturday, the country’s most powerful and inclusive Shia, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, met the pope and issued a statement stating that Christian citizens “live like all Iraqis in security and peace and with all constitutional rights” Are worthy of. “
Francis invoked the brotherhood at Saturday’s meeting of minorities on the desert plains of Ur, the tradition that is the homeland of Abraham, revered by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike.
The first two pops had tried and failed to visit the Christians in Iraq, but it was Francis, who was marginalized and forgotten as the pontiff, who was successful.
On Sunday afternoon, the faithful in Qaraqosh, the largest city in the Ninevah Plains, Iraq’s Christian heartland, thanked him for this. They stood on the streets outside the Al-Tahira Syriac Catholic Church, clapping and boiling as they approached their vehicle.
The residents of Qaraqosh spent the last three months preparing for the Pope’s arrival and the last four years to repair the damage done by ISIS. For many, Francis’ visit was a chance to celebrate the existence of the community.
A young priest danced in the street near the church holding a scarf, while a group of white-weeping nuns placed brightly colored balloons on the roof. Women and girls wore traditional Christian attire, embroidered with bright colors, waving olive branches with scenes of church and home life.
Hundreds of people crowded the church, prompting a Vatican official to complain to Iraqi organizers that there was not enough space among the people. The masks were often disorganized. But Coronavirus seemed the least of the attendants’ concerns.
The Karakosh, located just 20 miles from Mosul, overtook the Islamic State in 2014 and was held for three years before being liberated by US-backed Iraqi forces. On its arrival to ISIS, 50,000 of its residents fled, and those who returned returned looted the burnt houses and badly damaged the churches. Nearly half of the population before 2014 never returned.
ISIS had converted many homes into car bomb factories – including Edison Steffo, a school principal who was among the examiners waiting in the church.
He said he hoped the Pope’s visit would encourage Christians to return.
“It’s like a dream,” Mr. Steffo said. “We think he is one of us – that he is from our region and knows what we are doing.”
The Pope ended the day by celebrating Mass at a stadium in Erbil. During the visit, coronovirus infection spread in Iraq and concerns about potential congestion began to increase, with the Vatican insisting that all events would be socially distorted and safe.
But the priests organized trips to the Mass, packing the buses with parachineers. More than 10,000 people, many wearing white caps with the Pope’s face, entered the stadium. He chanted with chants and expressed joy and relief that a pope had finally come to find him.
Calling himself a “pilgrim among himself”, Francis concluded the final public show of his journey, which ends on Monday when he returns to Rome. “Today,” he said. “I can see for the first time that the church is alive in Iraq.”
Sangar Khalil Contributed to reporting from Erbil, Iraq.