“Today we raise our voices in prayer to the Almighty God for all the victims of war and armed conflict,” read from the printed paper in a soft voice. “Here in Mosul, the tragic consequences of war and hostility are very clear.”
The last full day of Francis’ trip through Iraq, the Pope’s first trip to the country, was marked by a startling contrast – the leader of the Roman Catholic Church came to a region that only four years ago was under the control of a terrorist group that killed the religious. In its propaganda, minorities vowed to “conquer Rome” as a symbol of the Christian West.
For Francis, prayer in Mosul will likely become one of the enduring images of papism: the moment when a world leader has reached a shattered place after so much of the world’s attention has been diverted from him. The Pope was already known for perilous travel – a poor neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, a war zone in the Central African Republic – but this time it was his message as far as a broken place made him unforgettable.
He told the audience: “Hope is stronger than hate.”
On his first two Sunday stops, both in an area formerly controlled by the Islamic State, the pope greeted cheering crowds. He told a church association in Qaraqosh: “Our gathering here today shows that terror and death do not have the last word.”
As night fell and his journey concluded, Francis told a crowd in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, that the sights he had seen here would stay with him.
He said, “Iraq will always be with me, in my heart.” He urged Iraqis to “work together in unity for a future of peace and prosperity that leaves no one behind and does not discriminate against anyone.”
In the aftermath of the defeat of the Islamic State, much of northern Iraq is still far from recovering. Disputes between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds over land and ideals are still raging. More than a million people remain displaced. The Islamic State has been driven from its lands, but small pockets of loyalists still operate underground. Christians, under threat of transformation and violence, have fled the region in droves – a dynamic that church officials hope will help Francis’ trip reverse course.
Security forces were deployed throughout Mosul and beyond Sunday, in a reminder that threats still exist even if Iraq is no longer in a state of war. A highway to Qaraqosh has been transformed into a surreal mix of shepherds, sheep and heavily armed soldiers standing on the grassy slopes.
There were signs of the trauma caused by the war and ISIS everywhere.
The US-led coalition, which supports Iraqi security forces in retaking territory from the militant group, predicted that the battle for Mosul would be swift. Instead, it was a punitive battle, claiming thousands of lives as Islamic State extremists fought alley after another and to death. It lasted longer than the Siege of Stalingrad.
In the west of the city, where the Pope performed his prayers, some homes are still crooked from rubble and steel reinforcement. Many families were left to pick up artifacts without government support.
The cathedral that hosted Francis in Qaraqosh was used by the Islamic State until 2016 as a shooting range. A priest in the church, Petrus Cheto, said that church members, after returning after defeating the militants, found “everything destroyed – there is no sign of life whatsoever.”
Churches were burned and crosses smashed across the altars. He said, “You cannot imagine.” It was just buildings without people. It was like hell.
Francis’ trip is his first overseas since Corona Virus The epidemic began. He used his time in Iraq to demand coexistence and an end to religious violence. On Saturday, he met in private with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leading religious figure among Iraqi Shiites, who rarely opens his door to world leaders, political or religious. The Pope held an interfaith event in the southern plain of Ur, the alleged birthplace of Abraham.
The visit has inspired pride across Iraq, with many seeing the tour as a rare moment in which their homeland is making headlines for a story not dominated by violence. But the government preparations have also come under fire. The infrastructure of Iraq has been crippled by decades of corruption and neglect. Before the Pope’s visit, the authorities re-paved the roads along which he was to be driven and planted flowers along the roads he had seen.
In an alleyway in St. Joseph’s Church in Baghdad last week, joking Christian residents said they were happy with the Pope’s arrival because he had given the Iraqi government the momentum to clear their streets.
The Christian community in Iraq has shrunk seven-fold in three decades, in part due to violent persecution, as hundreds of thousands have sought refuge elsewhere. On Sunday, Pastor Raed Kalou, the last priest to leave Mosul, said that only 70 Christian families remained there.
But there were also seeds of hope: In Qaraqosh, Faten Botros, 24, said she saw normal daily life return to the city. The lights were on. Singing rang from the church’s loudspeakers. As the city prepared for the Pope’s arrival, families lined up with balloons and banners.
Putrus lives with memories of three years on the run, escapes with an identity card and three changes of clothing, and then returns to her hometown to find many of them – including her home – burned down.
She said, “I don’t even have a picture from my childhood.”
Putrus said her six uncles have left for other countries, and they are not planning to return. Same with many of her friends. She said she lost so much that she didn’t know how to put it back together.
Lovelock mentioned from Baghdad. Mustafa Salem from Baghdad contributed to this report.