Pope meets Christians in IS-ravaged northern Iraq

For his last day in Iraq, Pope Francis is going Sunday under high protection to meet Christians in the North where the jihadist organization Islamic State (IS) has sown terror and death for three years.

The 84-year-old sovereign pontiff arrived at the airport in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where he was greeted by dignitaries and children in traditional Kurdish clothes.

He will then go to Mosul, a highly symbolic visit but also the most dangerous stage of his trip which began on Friday.

Even where in 2014 the jihadists had decreed their ‘caliphate’, the Pope will pronounce a ‘prayer for the victims of the war’, these thousands of Yazidis, Christians and Muslims murdered by the jihadists or fallen in combat to dislodge them from Iraq.

Seven years ago, the Pope said he was ready to come to the displaced and other victims of war. Today, he will discover the ruins left behind by the jihadists defeated at the end of 2017, he who firmly denounced ‘weapons’, ‘terrorism which abuses religion’ and ‘intolerance’.

But he will also see the reconstruction which begins.

‘We all hope that this visit will bode well for the Iraqi people. We hope that it will lead to better days’, enthuses already with AFP Adnane Youssef, Christian from northern Iraq.

“This very important visit will cheer us up after years of difficulties, problems and wars”, adds Father George Jahoula, while the Christian community in Iraq withers every year as they go into exile.

On alert

In this country of 40 million inhabitants, almost all Muslims, Christians are only 400,000 today, compared to 1.5 million before the American invasion in 2003.

In Mosul, whose old city is still just a huge pile of rubble, the Pope will meet with all the Christian communities after taking their cause to the authorities in Baghdad.

This is the day when bodyguards and law enforcement will be most alert. Because if the visit of the Pope is historic, the security system deployed to welcome it is just as important.

The few kilometers that the Pope traveled by road were in armored cars. For the majority of the 1,445 km of his route, which began on Friday afternoon, the Sovereign Pontiff is in a plane or a helicopter to fly over rather than cross areas where clandestine jihadist cells are still hiding.

And all this, in the midst of total confinement decreed until the end of his visit on Monday morning, in the face of Covid-19 contaminations which are reaching records in Iraq.

After Mosul, the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics will go to the emblematic locality of Qaraqosh, further east, where the al-Tahira church, completely burnt by IS, has been rehabilitated, cleaned and redecorated for its coming.

Mass in a stadium

Until the last moment, between rehearsals for the choirs, cleaning of the marble slabs of the churches and decorations installed in the streets, the inhabitants of Qaraqosh spared no effort.

It is there, in the plain of Nineveh, that most of the Christians of the country lived. They fled their villages in 2014, finding refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. Only a few tens of thousands of them have since returned.

The words said to the Pope on Saturday by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a great figure of Shiism in Iraq and beyond, ensuring to work for the Christians of Iraq to live in ‘peace’, in ‘security’ and with ‘all their constitutional rights ‘, could provide them with heartwarming support.

Highlight of Sunday, the mass that the Pope is to celebrate in the afternoon in a stadium in Erbil in front of thousands of faithful.

The pope, who loves walkabouts so much and has been deprived of them since his arrival in Iraq, will be able to find the faithful and probably greet them from the popemobile which has so far not been used.

/ ATS

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