Amid the ruins left by the jihadists, Pope Francis He prayed Sunday for the “victims of war” against the Islamic State (IS) group in the Iraqi city of Mosul, “capital of the caliphate” overthrown three years ago.
On the third and last day of his historic visit to Iraq, under heavy security measures, the pope addressed the fate of the Iraqi Christian community, one of the oldest in the world, but also one of the most exiled.
“The tragic decline in disciples of Christ, here and throughout the Middle East, is an incalculable harm not only to the individuals and communities affected, but to the very society they leave behind,” he said.
In this country of 40 million people, almost all Muslims, there are 400,000 Christians, a far lower figure compared to the 1.5 million before the US invasion in 2003.
In Mosul, a prosperous commercial city for centuries, the Catholic authorities could not find a church in good condition to receive the Argentine pope, who is making the first trip of a high pontiff to Iraq.
In total, 14 churches in the province of Nineveh (north), whose capital is Mosul, were destroyed, including seven temples from the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries.
For this reason, a stage had to be installed in the ruins of four churches from different dioceses, including the Al Tahira church in Mosul, which is more than a thousand years old.
It is in this place that the pope addressed a small excited crowd.
In the surrounding area, security forces and checkpoints were deployed throughout the province, where jihadist cells still persist, despite the military defeat of ISIS at the end of 2017.
Sunday is the day when bodyguards and security forces have to be most alert.
The few kilometers that the Pope traveled by road were in armored cars. Most of the 1,445 km of the itinerary undertaken on Friday were traveled by plane or helicopter to fly over the areas and avoid those where clandestine jihadist cells are still hiding.
And all this in the midst of a total confinement decreed until Monday (the day of his departure) to face the infections by covid-19 that are reaching records in the country.
But despite this complex context, Iraqi Christians want to see a message of hope in this papal visit.
Mass in a stadium
The Argentine Pope He has not stopped denouncing “weapons” in Iraq, “terrorism” that “abuses religion” and “intolerances”.
Again, in his Sunday prayer, he reiterated his message: “We are not allowed to kill our brothers [en] name ”of God,“ we are not allowed to wage war in his name ”.
After the meetings with the Christians of Mosul and Qaraqosh, the pope will officiate an afternoon mass in a stadium in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, in the north, before thousands of faithful.
Francis will be able to take the opportunity to converse with some of the faithful and probably greet them from the popemobile, which he has not used for the moment.
“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,” says Butros Chito, a Catholic priest, as he has just placed the last decorations in the Al Tahira church in Qaraqosh , near Mosul.
In this Christian town, with a history more than millenary, the 84-year-old pope met with faithful who still hesitate to return permanently to their villages.
His entourage was greeted by the cheers of Christians who fled the jihadist occupation of the city years ago, dressed in traditional costumes and waving palms, AFP found. There, he prayed the Angelus with them.
“Now is the time to rebuild and start over,” he encouraged.
Most of Iraq’s 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 the ex-paramilitaries now integrated into the state and that they have gained ground from the IS.
The words pronounced on Saturday by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a great Shiite figure who told the pope that he works for Christians in Iraq to live in “peace”, in “security” and with “all their constitutional rights”, could encourage them.