QARAKOSH, Iraq (AP) – Pope Francis on Sunday strongly called for peaceful coexistence in Iraq as he prayed for those killed in the country’s war amid the ruins of four destroyed Mosul churches destroyed in the war against Islamic State militants.
Francis traveled to northern Iraq on the last day of his historic visit to serve as a minister to help the country’s missing Christians, who were forced to flee their homes en masse in the summer of 2014 when IS militants bypassed vast areas of northern Iraq.
Few people have returned since the devastation of IT in 2017, իս Francis came to Iraq to encourage them to stay, to help rebuild the country, to rebuild the “hardcover carpet” of faith հավատ ethnic groups. For the Vatican, the continued presence of Christians in Iraq is vital to keeping alive the faith communities that have existed here since Christ.
Just four years ago, in an incredible scene, the pope took the stage in the town square, surrounded by the remains of four heavily damaged churches belonging to some of Iraq’s countless Christian rites and denominations. The independent crowd greeted him.
“How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have fallen because of such a severe blow, the old places of worship were destroyed, և thousands of people, Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, were brutally destroyed by terrorism, others were forcibly displaced or killed.” said Francis.
He deviated from his prepared speech, referring to the situation of the Yezidi minority in Iraq, which has been subjected to massacres, kidnappings and sexual slavery by the IP.
“Today, however, we reaffirm our belief that brotherhood is more resilient than fratricide, that hope is stronger than hatred; that peace is stronger than war.”
There are four different churches in the square where he spoke: Siro-Catholic, Armenian-Orthodox, Siro-Orthodox-Chaldean, each of which was left in ruins.
In June 2014, the ISIS overthrew Mosul, declaring a caliphate that stretched across northern Syria, northwestern Iraq. It was from the al-Nuri mosque in Mosul that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his only public speech when he preached on Friday, calling on all Muslims to join him as “caliph.”
Mosul had a deep symbolic significance for the IP, it became the bureaucratic-financial backbone of the group. It was finally liberated in July 2017, after a fierce nine-month battle. At that time, according to the AP investigation, 9,000 to 11,000 civilians were killed. Al-Baghdadi was assassinated in 2019 as a result of a US invasion of Syria.
The Vatican hopes that the historic visit will bring together the country’s Christian communities, encourage them to stay despite decades of war and instability. During the visit, Francisco conveyed a message of interfaith tolerance and brotherhood to Muslim leaders, including a historic meeting Saturday with Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Priest Raed Kallo was one of the few who returned after the defeat of Mosul IP. “I returned three years ago, and my Muslim brothers welcomed me with great hospitality after the liberation of the city,” he told the pope on stage.
Kalo said he left the city on June 10, 2014, when IP won the city. He had a parish of 500 Christian families, most of whom emigrated abroad. Now there are only 70 families left. “But today I live among the 2 million Muslims who call me their father Raed,” he said.
Gutayba Agha, the Muslim leader of the Independent Social and Cultural Council of Muslim Families, encourages other Christians to return.
“On behalf of the council, I invite all our Christian brothers to return here, their city, their possessions, their business.”
Francis will later fly by helicopter across the plains of Nineveh to the small Christian community of Karakos, where only a handful of families have returned after fleeing an IS attack in 2014. He will hear the testimonies of the inhabitants and pray in the Church of the Immaculate Conception. which was supposed to have been burned by the IP and has been restored in recent years.
He ends the day with a liturgy at Erbil Stadium, in the semi-automatic northern Kurdish region, which is expected to draw 10,000 people. He arrived in Erbil early Sunday morning, where he was greeted by children in traditional dress and one as Pope.
Prior to the trip, public health experts had expressed concern that large gatherings could serve as a coronavirus outbreak in a country where few people have been vaccinated.
The Vatican has said it is taking precautions, including holding a liturgy outside the stadium, which will only be partially filled. However, during the visit, the crowd gathered nearby, many did not wear masks. Pope և members of his delegation were vaccinated, but most Iraqis were not.
In 2017, Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State, although the extremist group no longer controls any territory, but still carries out regular attacks, especially in the north. The country has seen a series of recent missile strikes by US-backed militants against US targets, violence linked to tensions between Washington and Tehran.
The brutal three-year rule of the Islamic State group in much of northern ևWestern Iraq ը the campaign against it has left a huge chunk of destruction. Reconstruction efforts have stalled amid years of financial crisis, with entire neighborhoods in ruins. Many Iraqis have had to rebuild their homes on their own.
The Christian minority in Iraq was particularly hard hit. The non-Muslims forced them to choose between conversion, death or paying special taxes for non-Muslims. Thousands fled, leaving their homes and churches destroyed or run by extremists.
The Christian population of Iraq, which tells the story of the first days of its faith, was already rapidly declining. About 1.5 million people have been displaced by the US-led invasion of 2003, which has left the country in a state of chaos, with only a few hundred thousand today.
Associated Press writer Samya Kulab contributed to Baghdad.