Pope Francis prayed, on Sunday, for “victims of war” in the Iraqi city of Mosul, during a historic trip to a city terrorised by the “Islamic State” (IS) armed group.
The fundamentalist group also terrorised one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, until the jihadi group’s defeat three years ago.
Both Muslim and Christian residents of Mosul told Pope Francis of their lives under IS rule, as he told them that “fraternity is more durable than fratricide”.
On the third day of his trip to Iraq, the pope walked past the ruins of houses and churches to sit on a white chair surrounded by empty buildings, in a square that was once the centre of the Old City.
The city was occupied by IS from 2014 to 2017, a time in which the city saw many of its ancient churches and mosques destroyed. Much of the destruction was caused during a bloody battle involving Iraqi forces and an international military coalition looking to drive out IS.
In front of the walls of the centuries-old Al-Tahera (Immaculate Conception) Church, Pope Francis called on Christians in Iraq and the Middle East to stay in their homelands.
He made note of the “tragic” exodus of Christians from war-scarred Iraq and the wider region which “does incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned, but also to the society they leave behind”.
IS attacks forced hundreds of thousands of Christians in northern Iraq’s Nineveh province to flee. Meanwhile, the country’s Christian population has shrunk to fewer than 400,000, from around 1.5 million before the US-led invasion in 2003.
Father Raid Adel Kallo, pastor of the destroyed Church of the Annunciation, told Pope Francis how, in 2014, he left with 500 Christian families, and how fewer than 70 families are present now.
“The majority have emigrated and are afraid to return,” said Kallo, “But I live here, with 2
million Muslims who call me father, and I am living my mission with them.”
The heaviest deployment of security forces yet was also mobilised on Sunday, to protect Pope Francis on what could be the riskiest day of his trip to Iraq, as state forces are still battling IS cells.
On Saturday, he held a meeting with Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric and visited the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, a central figure in Christian, Muslim and Jewish beliefs.