Pope Francis Offers a Salve for Iraq’s Wounds
MOSUL, Iraq — After the Islamic State took management of Mosul seven years in the past and declared it the capital of its caliphate, the terrorist group sought to strike concern deep into the West by vowing to overcome Rome.
However with the Islamic State pushed from town, it was Pope Francis, the chief of the Roman Catholic Church, who on Sunday got here to Mosul. In a rare second on the final full day of the primary papal journey to Iraq, Francis went to the wounded coronary heart of the nation, instantly addressing the struggling, persecution and sectarian battle which have torn the nation aside.
“Now Rome has come right here,” Ghazwan Yousif Baho, a native priest who invited Francis to Mosul, stated as he awaited the pope’s arrival. “He’ll carry his blessing to unfold peace and brotherhood. It’s the start of a new period.”
Different popes have dreamed of visiting Iraq, however Francis is the primary to make the journey. In doing so, he has sought to guard an historical however battered and shrunken Christian neighborhood, construct relations with the Muslim world and reassert himself on the worldwide stage after being grounded for greater than a yr due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Following a prayer in Mosul for the lifeless, Francis went to the northern cities the place many Christians now stay, visiting a church filled with jubilant — and sometimes unmasked — devoted in Qaraqosh, dwelling of the nation’s largest Christian inhabitants.
He crossed into Iraqi Kurdistan in a lengthy and closely armed convoy protected by helicopters. It raced previous sprawling refugee camps towards Erbil, the place he ended the day celebrating a Mass for hundreds in a stadium. There too, the flouting of social distancing restrictions raised issues that the pope’s efforts to be near his flock may endanger them.
However many Iraqi Christians have stated that the prospect to attract consolation and therapeutic after years of incalculable distress outweighed the chance of contagion. The nation’s trauma, and Francis’ efforts to heal it, had been on full show in Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest metropolis.
The pope arrived by helicopter. Under him, hollowed shells of mortared buildings and the rubble of homes stretched out like a huge quarry. Combating between Islamic State militants and U.S.-backed Iraqi forces basically flattened the once-vibrant and various metropolis, leaving hundreds of civilians lifeless.
“Mosul Welcomes You” learn posters masking partitions so pockmarked with bullet holes that it regarded like a rash had damaged out. Twisted wrought-iron railings jutted out from ruined buildings.
Francis spoke in a public sq. surrounded by the stays of 4 church buildings of various Christian denominations, all badly broken or destroyed.
Youngsters wearing white and youngsters waving olive branches fashioned a hall for the pope’s arrival, and a refrain in conventional costume ululated loudly.
“The actual identification of this metropolis is that of harmonious coexistence between folks of various backgrounds and cultures,” Francis stated, including that the shrinking of the Christian inhabitants in Mosul — one of many oldest communities of its sort on the planet — and throughout the Center East did “incalculable hurt not simply to the people and communities involved but additionally to the society they go away behind.”
“How merciless it’s that this nation, the cradle of civilization, ought to have been stricken by so barbarous a blow, with historical locations of worship destroyed,” Francis stated. 1000’s of Muslims, Christians and Yazidis, he stated, “had been cruelly annihilated by terrorism, and others forcibly displaced or killed.”
Mosul’s once-large Christian inhabitants dwindled to a few thousand within the years after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, and in 2014 ISIS expelled those that remained. Solely about 350 Christians have returned since ISIS was pushed out in 2017 — virtually all of them to the extra affluent east facet, which suffered far much less injury.
“I particularly welcome, then, your invitation to the Christian neighborhood to return to Mosul,” stated Francis, who has praised younger volunteers, Muslim and Christian, working to rebuild church buildings and mosques.
“I’m certain it will likely be a first step for them to return again,” stated Anas Zeyad, a Muslim engineer who’s a part of a global mission to rebuild the church buildings. He stated that Christians who had fled town “have reminiscences, they’ve Muslim mates, they’ve houses right here.”
After praying for the lifeless, and for the repentance of their killers, Francis, who suffers from sciatica and limps closely, took a golf cart to the Syriac Catholic church that ISIS had used as a courthouse. On the way in which, he handed a cartoon mural of three ladies at play, their faces blacked out. ISIS forbade depictions of individuals and animals.
“We had been dwelling right here in Mosul, all collectively, Christians, Muslims,” stated Rana Bazzoiee, 37, a Christian and pediatric surgeon, who fled Mosul forward of the ISIS takeover in 2014. She stated that, whereas a semblance of normalcy had returned to town, the pope’s go to might enhance issues additional. “Why not?” she stated. “We lived collectively for a very long time in Mosul.”
In his whirlwind journey, Francis has sought to make important progress in tightening bonds between his church and the Muslim world. On Saturday, the nation’s strongest and reclusive Shiite, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, met with the pope and launched a assertion stressing that Christian residents deserved to “stay like all Iraqis in safety and peace and with full constitutional rights.”
Francis referred to as for brotherhood at a Saturday assembly of minorities on the desert plains of Ur, which custom holds is the homeland of Abraham, revered by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.
Two earlier popes had tried and failed to go to Christians in Iraq, but it surely was Francis, who as pontiff has prioritized reaching out to the marginalized and forgotten, who succeeded.
On Sunday afternoon, the devoted in Qaraqosh, the biggest city of the Ninevah Plains which might be Iraq’s Christian heartland, thanked him for it. They lined the streets exterior the al-Tahira Syriac Catholic Church, clapping and ululating as his car approached.
Residents of Qaraqosh have spent the previous three months getting ready the city for the pope’s arrival and the previous 4 years repairing the injury performed by ISIS. For a lot of, Francis’ go to was a likelihood to have fun the neighborhood’s survival.
A younger priest holding a scarf danced on the street close to the church whereas a group of white-robed nuns on a rooftop held brightly coloured balloons. Ladies and ladies sporting conventional Christian costume, with brightly coloured wraps embroidered with scenes of church and residential life, waved olive branches.
A whole bunch crowded into the church, prompting one Vatican official to complain to Iraqi organizers that there was not enough area between folks within the pews. Masks had been usually disregarded. However the coronavirus appeared the least of attendants’ worries.
Qaraqosh, simply 20 miles from Mosul, was overtaken by the Islamic State in 2014 and held for three years earlier than being liberated by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces. Its 50,000 residents fled when ISIS arrived, and people who returned discovered burned and looted homes and badly broken church buildings. About half the pre-2014 inhabitants by no means got here again.
ISIS had turned many houses into automobile bomb factories — together with that of Edison Stefo, a college principal who was among the many parishioners ready within the church.
He stated he hoped the pope’s go to would encourage Christians to return.
“That is like a dream,” Mr. Stefo stated. “We really feel like he’s considered one of us — that he’s from our space and is aware of what we went by way of.”
The pope ended the day by celebrating Mass at a stadium in Erbil. Within the days main as much as the go to, as coronavirus infections spiked in Iraq and issues grew about potential crowds, the Vatican insisted that every one occasions can be socially distanced and protected.
However clergymen organized journeys to the Mass, packing buses with parishioners. Greater than 10,000 folks, many in white hats emblazoned with the pope’s face, entered the stadium. They hummed together with chants and expressed pleasure and reduction that a pope had lastly come to search out them.
Calling himself “a pilgrim in your midst,” Francis concluded the final public occasion of his journey, which ends on Monday when he returns to Rome. “Right now,” he stated. “I can see at first hand that the church in Iraq is alive.”
Sangar Khaleel contributed reporting from Erbil, Iraq.
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