Pope Francis visited Mosul on the last leg of the pontiff's historic trip to Iraq. In this large city in the north of Iraqi territory, the jihadist group Daesh established terror through attacks and repression between 2014 and 2017.
Pope Francis held a prayer this Sunday for the "victims of war" in front of a centuries-old church in the northern city of Mosul, which suffered severe damage to its heritage by Daesh, and publicly assured that the forced departure of Christians from the Middle East due to the terrible action of the jihadist group is an "incalculable damage, not only for the individuals and communities affected, but for the very society they leave behind".
Francis became the first pope to visit Iraq; given the exceptional nature of the trip, he was escorted by five Iraqi helicopters and was taken in an armoured car to the ruins of the ancient church in central Mosul, where the aforementioned prayer took place.
On Sunday in Mosul he recited a "prayer for the victims of war", those thousands of Yazidis, Christians and Muslims killed by jihadists or killed in combat to drive them out of Iraq. The supreme pontiff, opposed to "weapons", "terrorism that abuses religion" and "intolerance", wanted to witness in person the ruins left by the jihadists, who were defeated in 2017. "We all hope that this visit will be a good omen for the Iraqi people. We hope it will bring better days," Adnan Yusef, a Christian from northern Iraq, told AFP news agency. "This important visit will boost our morale after years of difficulties, problems and wars," said Father George Jahula, in a country where the Christian community is shrinking every year due to exiles.
In this nation of 40 million people, almost all of them Muslim, there are 400,000 Christians, down from 1.5 million before the 2003 US invasion in the operation against Saddam Hussein's regime.
In Mosul, whose old city has been reduced to a pile of rubble, the Pope included in his agenda a meeting with all the Christian communities, after having communicated his claims to the Baghdad authorities.
In Hosh al-Bieaa Square, where four Christian churches once stood before Daesh terrorists razed the city to the ground, Francis began his prayer in a moving way: "If God is the God of life, and he is, it is not lawful for us to kill our brothers in his name".
And amidst the rubble and crumbling walls, the pontiff continued: "If God is the God of peace, and he is, it is not lawful for us to wage war in his name. If God is the God of love, and he is, it is not lawful for us to hate our brothers and sisters".
In the face of the brutal destruction caused during the years in which Daesh turned Mosul into the Iraqi capital of its self-proclaimed "caliphate", Francis concluded by imploring God's forgiveness for all that happened, while entrusting to him "the many victims of man's hatred against man".
Of particular note on the itinerary is the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh, northern Iraq, which has become a symbol of hope and rebirth for the country's decimated Christian community. The largest Syrian Catholic church in the area, burned, destroyed, desecrated by Daesh jihadists, welcomed the Pope.
Excited people watched Pope Francis walk through the central nave of the church, surrounded by the 20 imposing grey marble columns until recently blackened by smoke from the fire caused by the jihadists.
"We are very happy. It's a special day for us," Andy Abd, a young man born in Qaraqosh, told Efe news agency that in 2014 he had to flee the city after the arrival of Daesh.
Fifty percent of the inhabitants did not return after the forced exodus, especially the young people, but those who did return can now count on the Church of Al-Tahira (Of the Immaculate) of Qaraqosh, or Bajdida as they prefer to call it in their language, Aramaic. The jihadists smashed this church, blew up its steeple and burnt it. It became a symbol of terror in its day.
This is the third and last day of the Pope's historic visit to Iraq. The 84-year-old Argentine pontiff arrived at the airport in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where he was greeted by local leaders and children in traditional Kurdish dress.
He then travelled to Mosul, a highly symbolic visit, and also the most dangerous leg of his journey; a day when bodyguards and security forces have had to be most vigilant. The few kilometres the Pope travelled by road were in armoured cars. Most of the 1,445 kilometres of the total itinerary undertaken since Friday were travelled by plane or helicopter to fly over areas and avoid those where clandestine jihadist cells are still hiding.
On the first day, the Pope was received on his arrival in Baghdad by the Prime Minister of Iraq, Mustafa al-Kazemi, and by the President of the Republic, Barham Saleh. Later, on Saturday, he held a historic meeting in the holy city of Najaf with the Shiite leader Ali al-Sistani, with whom he agreed on the message of religious brotherhood and the rejection of all types of radicalism and fanatical extremism.
Precisely seven years ago, when the jihadists were gaining ground in the Gulf country, the Pope said he was ready to go to the place himself to bring comfort to the displaced and other victims of the war. A visit that has already taken place this March 2021 to give hope to the Christians present in Iraqi territory and to continue to strengthen ties between different religions, in this case between Christianity and Islam.