Amid the ruins left by Islamic extremists, Pope Francis prayed, this Sunday, for the “victims of the war” against the Islamic State (IS) group in the Iraqi city of Mosul, “capital of the caliphate” defeated three years ago.
On the third and last day of his historic visit to Iraq, under tight security measures, the pope spoke about the fate of the Iraqi Christian community, one of the oldest in the world, but also one of the most in exile.
“The tragic decline of Christ’s disciples, here and throughout the Middle East, is incalculable harm not only to the affected individuals and communities but to the very society they leave behind,” he said.
In this country of 40 million people, almost all of whom are Muslims, there are 400,000 Christians, a much smaller number compared to the 1.5 million before the invasion of the United States in 2003.
In Mosul, which for centuries has been a thriving commercial city, Catholic authorities have been unable to find a church in good condition to receive the Argentine pope, who is taking the first trip of a high pontiff to Iraq.
In total, 14 churches in the northern province of Nineveh, whose capital is Mosul, were destroyed, including seven temples from the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries.
So it was necessary to install a stage in the ruins of four churches from different dioceses, including the Al Tahira church in Mosul, more than a thousand years old.
It was in this place that the pope addressed a small animated crowd.
In the surrounding area, security forces and controls have been deployed across the province, where jihadist cells still persist, despite ISIS’s military defeat in late 2017.
– On alert – Sunday is the day when bodyguards and security forces are expected to be most alert.
The few kilometers the pope traveled by road were in an armored car. Most of the 1,445 km of itinerary traveled on Friday was by plane or helicopter to fly over areas and avoid those where clandestine extremist cells are still hiding.
And all this in the midst of total confinement decreed until Monday (the day of his departure) to face the covid-19, which records of cases in the country. Pope Francis prayed
But despite this complex context, Iraqi Christians are waiting for a message of hope on this papal visit.
– “People of love” – ”Pope Francis arrives with his white habit to announce to the whole world that we are a people of peace, of civilization, of love”, said Butros Chito, a Catholic priest, as he finished putting on the last decorations in the church of Al Tahira in Qaraqosh, near Mosul.
In this Christian city, with a history that is more than a thousand years old, the 84-year-old pope met with faithful who still hesitate to return definitively to their villages.
His entourage was greeted by the applause of Christians who fled years ago from the city’s jihadist occupation, dressed in traditional dress and waving their hands, AFP reported. There, he prayed the Angelus with them.
“Now is the time to rebuild and start over,” encouraged Francisco.
Most Iraqi Christians lived on the Nineveh Plain, but many fled their villages in 2014 and took refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. Since then, only a few tens of thousands of them have returned.
Many say they fear ex-paramilitaries now integrated into the state and who have gained space with ISIS.
The words were spoken on Saturday by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a great figure of Shiism who told the pope who works for Iraq’s Christians to live in “peace”, “insecurity” and with “all their constitutional rights”, could encourage them .
– Mass at the stadium -The Argentine pope has not stopped denouncing in Iraq “weapons”, “terrorism” that “betrays religion” and “intolerances”.
Once again, in his Sunday prayer, he reiterated his message: “We are not allowed to kill our brothers [in] the name” of God, “we are not allowed to make war in his name”.
After meetings with Christians in Mosul and Qaraqosh, the pope will celebrate an evening mass at a stadium in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, in the north, in front of thousands of worshipers. Pope Francis prayed
Francisco will have the opportunity to talk to some of the faithful and probably greet them from the popemobile, which he has not yet used.