Pope Francis met Christians on Sunday in an old church that was burned by the Islamic State group as it swept into the northern Iraqi city of Qaraqosh in 2014.
After the jihadists were fired from the city in 2016, the church Al-Tahera (Immaculate Conception) restored impressive marble floors and columns and the believers gathered there on Sunday to welcome the pope.
Among them was Munir Jibrail, who seven years ago was forced to flee his hometown when black-clad jihadists swept in. Today he has returned and welcomed a man dressed in white.
“It’s amazing to see the pope! We never expected him to come to Qaraqosh,” the 61-year-old maths professor told AFP.
“Maybe it can help rebuild the country and finally give love and peace. We thank him.”
The 84-year-old Pope Francis arrived in the northern city of Qaraqosh on Sunday, among olive branches and palm leaves.
The city’s residents have been waiting for this for several years.
In 2014, the Islamic group swept through Iraq’s Nineveh plains, home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
Within days, almost all of Qaraqosh’s 55,000 Christian residents, including Jibrail, had fled, mostly east to the autonomous Kurdish region.
For almost three years, they disappeared far from their hometown when they heard news of IS fighters trying to erase all traces of its Christian heritage.
The jihadists searched and burned churches and smashed crosses, but were eventually expelled from the city in 2016.
Since then, only 26,000 Qaraqosh residents have returned to thoroughly rebuild it.
>> Iraqi Christians in Qaraqosh are rebuilding the city destroyed by jihadist occupation
Jibrail was among the first. He spent four years restoring his home and finished just in time for Francis’ visit.
The pope prayed with the believers in Qaraqosh’s church Al-Tahera (Immaculate Conception), where the marble floors and interior columns have been restored.
In his speech, he praised the statue of the Virgin Mary that adorns the church and explains that “to her I have entrusted the rebirth of this city.”
“Return after emigration”
Those who were lucky enough to have tickets to the prayer were dressed in their Sunday best: women in colorful embroidered clothes, children wearing roses, men in ties and suit jackets.
Health workers in blue suits took their temperatures and, once inside, wore most masks to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Many in the city remember the horrors of IS, which burned Al-Tahera and forced Christians to choose between fleeing, converting to Islam or being killed.
“Here the churches were turned into prisons. Everything was broken. It was heartbreaking,” said Cardinal Louis Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church.
“Today we celebrate the return after the emigration.”
In his address, Francis called for reconciliation.
“The road to full recovery may still be long, but I beg you, please, do not be discouraged,” he said in his address. “Forgiveness is necessary to remain in love, to remain a Christian.”
The announcement resonated with Amal Ezzo, a 55-year-old principal at a Catholic school in Qaraqosh.
“We must live in peace,” she told AFP.
She had also fled the ravages of IS across the north, saying that Iraqi Christians had been abandoned for far too long.
“The government did not help us build our homes – international organizations did,” Ezzo said.
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.
Among those gathered, women seemed to surpass men and the pope had a special message for them.
“I want to say a heartfelt thank you to all the mothers and women in this country, brave women who continue to give life, despite faults and hurt,” he said.
Iraq is still largely conservative, with women excluded from public life even in some major cities, and only one in ten women-run companies.
The pope asked for progress.
“May women be respected and protected!” he urged. “May they show respect and be given opportunities!”
( Jowharwith AFP)