‘Hope is more powerful than hatred’: Pope Francis calls for peace in Iraq

Pontiff prays for those killed in war with Islamic State during visit to northern city of Mosul

 

Pope Francis appealed for peaceful coexistence in Iraq on Sunday as he prayed for the country’s war dead amid the ruins of four demolished churches in Mosul that suffered widespread destruction in the war against Islamic State.

The Pope travelled to northern Iraq on the final day of his historic visit to minister to the country’s dwindling number of Christians, who were forced to leave their homes en masse when IS militants overtook vast swathes of northern Iraq in the summer of 2014.

Few have returned in the years since Islamic State, also known as Isis, was routed in 2017, and Pope Francis came to Iraq to encourage them to stay and help rebuild the country and restore what he called its “intricately designed carpet” of faith and ethnic groups.

For the Vatican, the continued presence of Christians in Iraq is vital to keeping alive faith communities that have existed in the country since the time of Christ.

In a scene unimaginable just four years ago, the pontiff mounted a stage in a city square surrounded by the remnants of four heavily damaged churches belonging to some of Iraq’s myriad Christian rites and denominations. A jubilant crowd welcomed him.

“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 — who were cruelly annihilated by terrorism — and others forcibly displaced or killed,” Pope Francis said.

He deviated from his prepared speech to address the plight of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, which was subjected to mass killings, abductions and sexual slavery at the hands of Islamic State.

“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.”

The square where he spoke is home to four different churches — Syro-Catholic, Armenian-Orthodox, Syro-Orthodox and Chaldean — each of them left in ruins.

Islamic State overran Mosul in June 2014 and declared a caliphate stretching from territory in northern Syria deep into Iraq’s north and west.

It was from Mosul’s al-Nuri mosque that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his only public appearance when he gave a Friday sermon calling on all Muslims to follow him as “caliph”.

Mosul held deep symbolic importance for Islamic State and became the bureaucratic and financial backbone of the group.

It was finally liberated in July 2017 after a ferocious nine-month battle. Between 9,000 and 11,000 civilians were killed, according to an AP investigation at the time. Al-Baghdadi was killed in a US raid in Syria in 2019.

Pope Francis will travel by helicopter across the Nineveh plains to the small Christian community of Qaraqosh, where only a fraction of families have returned after fleeing the Islamic State onslaught in 2014. He will hear testimonies from residents and pray in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which was torched by Islamic State and restored in recent years.

He wraps up the day with a Mass in the stadium in Irbil, in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region, that is expected to draw as many as 10,000 people.

He arrived in Irbil early on Sunday, where he was greeted by children in traditional dress. – PA

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