On Sunday, Pope Francis, on his historic tour of Iraq, visited Christian communities that endured the brutality of the Islamic group until the jihadist “caliphate” was defeated three years ago.
The 84-year-old, who travels under tight security, will lead a prayer “for the victims of the war” in Mosul, an ancient crossing whose center was reduced to rubble by fierce fighters to get rid of the Islamic group.
“We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion,” Francis said at an interfaith service on Saturday, one of the many stops at the first ever papal visit to the war-torn country.
Pope Francis’ trip to Iraq as a “pilgrimage of peace” aims to calm the country’s old, but declining, Christian community and to expand its dialogue with other religions.
The leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics met on Saturday with Iraq’s chief Shiite Muslim priest, the retrospective great Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who agreed that Iraqi Christians could live in “peace.”
“We all hope that this visit will be a good sign for the Iraqi people,” Adnane Youssef, a Christian from northern Iraq, told AFP. “We hope it will lead to better days.”
The Christian community in Iraq, a Muslim country of 40 million, has shrunk from 1.5 million before the 2003 US-led invasion that drove Saddam Hussein to only 400,000 now, about one percent of the population.
“This very important visit will increase our morale after years of hardship, trouble and war,” said an Iraqi Christian leader, Father George Jahoula.
Back in 2014, when IS militants swept over a third of Iraq, Pope Francis had said he was ready to come to meet the displaced and other war victims.
Seven years later, after a stop early on Sunday in the Kurdish northern part of Iraq, he himself will see the ruined old city of Mosul and efforts to rebuild it.
Pope Francis will also visit Qaraqosh, further east in the Nineveh Plain, one of Iraq’s oldest Christian cities.
It was largely destroyed in 2014 when IS collapsed through the area, but its residents have been leaking back since 2017 and are slowly working to rebuild their hometown.
To honor the pope, local artisans have woven a two-meter (6.5-foot) prayer shawl, or stole it, with the prayers “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” hand-sewn in the golden thread in Syriac, a dialect of languages spoken by Jesus. Christ still used in Qaraqosh.
Pope Francis Iraq Schedule
The pope’s program in Iraq includes visits to the cities of Baghdad, Najaf, Ur, Mosul, Qaraqosh and Erbil. He will cross about 1445 km in a country where tensions are still lingering and where more recently the Covid-19 plagues have led to a record number of infections. Pope Francis will travel in an armored car through the usual crowds that flock to catch a glimpse of the leader of the Catholic Church. Sometimes he will have to travel by helicopter or plane over areas where jihadists belonging to the Islamic State group are still present. The process began on Friday with a speech to Iraqi leaders in Baghdad, addressing the security and economic difficulties facing Iraq’s 40 million people. The pope also discusses the persecution of the country’s Christian minority. On Saturday, he hosted the holy city of Najaf by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest authority for many Shiites in Iraq and the world. The pope also made a trip to the ancient city of Ur, which according to the Bible is the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, a common figure of the three monotheistic religions. There he prayed with Muslims, Yazidis and Sanari (a pre-Christian monotheistic religion). Francis continues his journey on Sunday in the province of Nineveh in northern Iraq, the cradle of Iraqi Christians. He will then travel to Mosul and Qaraqoch, two cities plagued by the destruction of Islamic extremists. The pope ends his tour by leading an outdoor mass on Sunday in the presence of thousands of Christians in Erbil, the capital of Iraq Kurdistan. This Kurdish Muslim stronghold has offered refuge to hundreds of thousands of Christians, Yazidis and Muslims who fled the atrocities of the Islamic State.
Holy Mass at the stadium
Security will be extra tight in northern Iraq, where state forces are still chasing IS remnants and sleeping cells.
Many thousands of troops and police have been deployed as the pope has crossed the country and taken planes, helicopters and armored convoys to cover more than 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) in the country.
The other major challenge is the Covid-19 pandemic, as Iraq has recently caught a second wave of more than 5,000 cases in a single day.
Iraqi authorities have introduced lock-in measures to control the crowds, but thousands of believers are expected to flock to a stadium later Sunday in the northern city of Arbil to hear the pope.
Arbil, the capital of Iraq’s oil-rich northern Kurdish region, has been a relative oasis of stability and a haven for many Christians fleeing IS.
Thousands of seats in the Franso Hariri arena will be left empty to avoid creating a super-spreading event when Iraqis come to hear the Catholic leader, known here as “Baba al-Vatican”, deliver the holy mass.