Amid the ruins of the former ISIS stronghold of Mosul, Pope Francis prayed for people of all religions who suffered at the hands of the Islamic extremists on Sunday, the final day of his historic tour of Iraq.
Surrounded by the grey hollowed-out shells of four churches, the pontiff was greeted by a jubilant crowd in the city which was once the heart of ISIS’ so-called “caliphate,” and witnessed the worst of the terror group’s rule, including beheadings and mass killings.
“How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow,” Francis told the jubilant crowd which turned out to greet him, many waving Iraqi flags.
Speaking in Italian, he added that “many thousands of people” including Muslims, Christians and members of the ancient Yazidi community had been “cruelly annihilated by terrorism.”
In an apparent direct reference to ISIS, Francis, 84, said that fraternity, hope and peace could never be “silenced by the blood spilled by those who pervert the name of God to pursue paths of destruction.”
The square where he spoke is home to four different churches — Syriac Catholic, Armenian-Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox and Chaldean — each left in ruins.
“Today, however, we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war,” he said.
Later in the town of Qaraqosh Francis told a packed Church of the Immaculate Conception, that “forgiveness” was a key word for Christians.
“The road to a full recovery may still be long, but I ask you, please, not to grow discouraged. What is needed is the ability to forgive, but also the courage not to give up.”
Mosul was overrun by ISIS in June 2014 and became ISIS’ bureaucratic and financial backbone.
It was from Mosul’s al-Nuri mosque that then-IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only public appearance when he gave a Friday sermon calling on all Muslims to follow him as “caliph.” Al-Baghdadi was killed in a U.S. raid in Syria in 2019.
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However, corruption and political infighting have slowed down efforts to rebuild the and large parts of it remain in ruins.
Iraq’s Christian minority, one of the oldest in the world, took an especially hard toll under the group’s rule and many were forced to flee, leaving behind homes and churches that were destroyed or commandeered by the extremists.
The country’s Christian population fell to fewer than 250,000 from estimated 1.4 million before the U.S. invasion of 2003, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. State Department.
Francis later travelled to a Christian community of Qaraqosh, just 20 miles southeast of Mosul, where people gathered with olive branches and balloons to welcome him. He will end the day with a mass in a stadium in Erbil, in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region, that is expected to draw up to 10,000 people.
It’s the pope’s first international trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Throughout his trip, while blanketed in intense security, he has stressed religious tolerance.
On Saturday, he held a historic meeting with Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, appealing for greater interfaith unity, and visited the birthplace of Prophet Abraham — a unifying prophet in Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.