MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Pope Francis heard Muslim and Christian residents in the ruined Iraqi city of Mosul tell of their lives under brutal Islamic State rule on Sunday, blessing their vow to rise up from ashes and promising them “fraternity is more durable than fratricide.”
Francis, on a historic first visit by a pope to Iraq, visited the northern city to encourage the healing of sectarian wounds and to pray for the dead of any religion.
The 84-year-old pope saw ruins of houses and churches in a square that was the old town’s thriving centre before Mosul was occupied by Islamic State from 2014 to 2017. He sat surrounded by skeletons of buildings, dangling concrete staircases, and cratered ancient churches, most too dangerous to enter.
“Together we say no to fundamentalism. No to sectarianism and no to corruption,” the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, Najeeb Michaeel, told the pope.
Much of the old city was destroyed in 2017 during the bloody battle by Iraqi forces and an international military coalition to drive out Islamic State.
Francis, who flew to Mosul by helicopter, was visibly moved by the earthquake-like devastation around him. He prayed for all of the city’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.”
Intense security has surrounded his trip to Iraq. Military pickup trucks mounted with machine guns escorted his motorcade and plainclothes security men mingled in Mosul with the handles of guns emerging from black backpacks worn on their chests.
In an apparent direct reference to Islamic State, Francis said hope could never be “silenced by the blood spilled by those who pervert the name of God to pursue paths of destruction.”
He then read a prayer repeating one of the main themes of his trip, that it is always wrong to hate, kill or wage war in God’s name.
Fighters of Islamic State, a Sunni militant group that tried to establish a caliphate across the region, ravaged northern Iraq from 2014-2017, killing Christians as well as Muslims who opposed them.
‘AFRAID TO RETURN’
Iraq’s Christian community, one of the oldest in the world, has been particularly devastated by the years of conflict, falling to about 300,000 from about 1.5 million before the U.S. invasion of 2003 and the brutal Islamist militant violence that followed.
Father Raid Adel Kallo, pastor of the destroyed Church of the Annunciation, told how in 2014 he fled with 500 Christian families and how fewer than 70 families are present now.
“The majority have emigrated and are afraid to return,” he said.
“But I live here, with two million Muslims who call me father and I am living my mission with them,” he added, telling the pope of a committee of Mosul families who promote peaceful coexistence among Muslims and Christians.
A Muslim member of the Mosul committee, Gutayba Aagha, urged the Christians who had fled to “return to their properties and resume their activities”.
Francis flew by helicopter to Qaraqosh, a Christian enclave that was overrun by Islamic State fighters, and visited a church whose courtyard was used by the insurgents as a firing practice range.
He then said Mass in Erbil, capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region, where thousands of people packed a stadium.
In both Qaraqosh and Erbil, he received the most tumultuous welcomes of his visit. And in both places most people were not wearing masks or practicing social distancing despite a rising number of COVID-19 cases in the country.
“This visit gives us hope and courage, it’s as if we’re celebrating a new life,” said Frdos Zora, a nun at the stadium Mass.
At the end of the Mass, the last official event before he returns to Rome on Monday, Francis told the crowd, “Iraq will always remain with me, in my heart”.
He closed by saying “salam, salam, salam” (peace, peace, peace) in Arabic.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella in Mosul and Erbil and Michael Georgy in Erbil; Additional reporting by Eleanor Biles, Amina Ismail and John Davison; Writing by Philip Pullella and John Davison; Editing by Louise Heavens and Frances Kerry)