POPE FRANCIS has ended his four-day visit, the first papal visit, to Iraq (News, 5 March) by celebrating mass in Mosul, a former stronghold of Islamic State (IS).
Throughout his visit, he urged religious tolerance and an end to the persecution of Christians, who have been in this part of the world since the first century.
On Sunday, the last day of his tour, he visited Mosul, Qaraqosh, and Erbil, in northern Iraq.
Tens of thousands of Christians were either killed or fled for their lives when the Islamist group declared its caliphate in 2014. The region’s Christian population has now dwindled to fewer than 250,000.
In Mosul, the Pope stood silent for a time by ruins of churches that IS destroyed. Thirty churches were damaged in the 2014 attack, and none have been rebuilt.
He said: “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.
“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.” What was needed was “the ability to forgive, but also the courage not to give up”.
In Erbil, in the Kurdish north, which has offered refuge to Christians and others fleeing persecution for more than a decade, he thanked local leaders: “You have protected Christian communities when Isis attacked,” he said. Ten thousand people gathered to catch a glimpse of the Pope in a stadium, despite concerns about the transmission of Covid.
He also met the father of Alan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian Kurdish toddler who became a symbol of the plight of migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
The Pope’s visit involved dangers from both the security situation and the rising number of coronavirus cases. He has received his second dose of a Covid vaccine, but it was feared that large events could become into “superspreaders” as people failed to follow social distancing.
One of the most symbolic and meetings of the four days was with the Shia Muslim leader the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. They spoke together for 50 minutes without face coverings.
Afterwards, the Grand Ayatollah “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights”. A Vatican spokesman said that Pope Francis thanked the Ayatollah for speaking up “in defence of those most vulnerable and persecuted”.
In a visit to the site of the ancient city of Ur, which the Old Testament refers to as the birthplace of Abraham, the Pope condemned extremism. “We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion. Indeed, we are called unambiguously to dispel all misunderstandings. Let us not allow the light of heaven to be overshadowed by the clouds of hatred.”
At the final event on Sunday, before his flight back to Rome on Monday, the Pope said: “Iraq will always remain with me, in my heart.”
Elliot Granger, director of the Ankawa Foundation, which was set up in 2014 to respond to the displaced people from Mosul and the Plains of Iraq, said: “The Pope draws the eyes of the world to the Christians of Iraq and their plight. For the local community this means so much, it is a powerful sense that they are not forgotten, which is often how they feel. It is a huge political coup too, reminding the country they exist, and matter.”
The Foundation has launched a new appeal, the Anglican Friends of Ankawa, to fund their work with Christians in northern Iraq.