Pope Francis leads prayers in shadow of Iraqi churches destroyed by Islamic State

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Campbell MacDiarmid
·4 min read
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Pope Francis leads prayers surrounded by Mosul's destroyed churches - AP Photo/Andrew Medichini
Pope Francis leads prayers surrounded by Mosul's destroyed churches - AP Photo/Andrew Medichini

Pope Francis prayed for the victims of war in battle-scarred Mosul on the third day of his historic Iraq visit on Sunday, before holding mass for thousands of Christians in the capital of the Kurdistan Region.

The 84-year-old Pontiff started the day by travelling via helicopter from Erbil, Kurdistan to Mosul, Iraq’s second city, which was under Islamic State occupation less than four years ago.

Security across Mosul was extremely tight ahead of his arrival, with the Pope riding in a black armoured sedan to the historic Old City, which was largely destroyed in the battle to drive out IS.

Flanked by Iraqi special forces and a Vatican security detail, Pope Francis was greeted by ululating women and a crowd chanting “Viva el Papa”, as children dressed in traditional Nineveh folk costumes waved Iraqi flags.

Among the crowd of hundreds gathered in the Old City’s ruined Church Square, dozens of Christians who have recently returned to the city were joined by local dignitaries and Yazidi, Christian, Shia and Sunni religious leaders.

Members of the St. Yousef Choir of Karamles wait for the Pope's arrival - Sam Tarling for The Telegraph
Members of the St. Yousef Choir of Karamles wait for the Pope's arrival - Sam Tarling for The Telegraph

In an address, the Pope referred to the city’s rich cultural history and the attempts by IS extremists to eradicate it.

“How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilisation, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people – Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others – forcibly displaced or killed,” he said.

“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.”

Pope Francis referred to the extremist jihadist group indirectly, telling the audience that hope could never be “silenced by the blood spilled by those who pervert the name of God to pursue paths of destruction.”

Girls wave national flags as they gather at Church square ahead of Pope Francis' arrival to visit Mosul, Iraq, March 7, 2021. - REUTERS/Yara Nardi
Girls wave national flags as they gather at Church square ahead of Pope Francis' arrival to visit Mosul, Iraq, March 7, 2021. - REUTERS/Yara Nardi

IS rule in Mosul was characterised by religious intolerance and a rejection of the city’s multicultural history. Archaeological and religious sites were looted by the extremists and the city’s 2,000 remaining Christian families forced into exile.

Waving olive branches and wearing vests emblazoned with the Virgin Mary, a group of mostly Muslim volunteers said they had been working to eradicate the impact IS had made on the city.

Qamar, a 22-year-old Mosul University student, said she and the Virgin Mary volunteer team have been clearing streets of rubble and helping renovate damaged churches and mosques since the fighting ended in summer 2017.

“Daesh tried to destroy multiculturalism in the city” but Christians were an important part of the city’s heritage, she said.

“The Pope’s visit is important for all Mosul,” she added. “He’s bringing us peace and love and tolerance.”

The Pope leading prayers amid the rubble - Sam Tarling for The Telegraph
The Pope leading prayers amid the rubble - Sam Tarling for The Telegraph

The Pope spent a little over an hour in Mosul before flying to the Nineveh Plains town of Qaraqosh, whose Christian population was expelled by IS in 2014.

There he called on the faithful who have since returned to rebuild their lives in a spirit of forgiveness and fraternity.

“This is the time to restore not just buildings but also the bonds of community that unite communities and families,” he said.

Later the Pope held mass for several thousand at a stadium in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region, which has become a relative safehaven for many of Iraq’s remaining Christians.

Fawzi Solaka, a 60-year-old artist, said the Pope’s message of forgiveness over revenge resonated for Christians like him.

Crowds of some 10,000 people watch Pope Francis arrive at a stadium in Erbil, Iraq - am Tarling for The Telegraph
Crowds of some 10,000 people watch Pope Francis arrive at a stadium in Erbil, Iraq - am Tarling for The Telegraph

“Christians and Muslims have to live together in this life,” he said. “We are brothers with the Kurds, Yazidis, Kakais and every other religious group that lives in this land.”

Lingering fear has prevented many Iraqi Christians from returning to their former homes and, earlier in the week, Saadallah Rassam told The Telegraph he was the last Christian left living in Old Mosul.

But the 63-year-old photographer had a perspective-altering experience on Sunday when the Pope unexpectedly stopped his vehicle to speak with him.

Shortly after kissing the Pope’s hand, Mr Rassam stood alone in the sunshine blinking back tears.

“I told the Pope I was the first Christian back in Mosul’s Old City,” he said.