Mass in Erbil capped the day, which began in Mosul with a powerfully moving prayer service for victims or war, and saw the indomitable spirit of Christian faithful celebrated in sorely tried Qaraqosh.
By John Cookson in Baghdad
— Baghdad — The Pope ended the last full day of an historic pilgrimage to Iraq by saying mass at a football arena before thousands of adoring Christians who’d travelled there from across the country to receive his blessing.
The Franso Hariri stadium holds 25,000 but less than half that number were able to attend the ticket only event due to social distancing rules.
Many of the congregation were seated distanced on white chairs on the pitch, the remainder similarly spaced out in the stands.
The Mass featured a statue of the Virgin Mary that was restored after ISIS jihadists chopped off the head and hands.
The Pope blessed the statue, which was transported from the church in Keramlis, a Christian village on the Nineveh Plains, to a place of honor on the altar at Sunday’s Mass.
Keramlis, an ancient Assyrian town less than 30 kilometers southeast of Mosul, fell to the so-called Islamic State in August 2014, two months after the extremists took Mosul and surrounding areas, sending most inhabitants fleeing.
In his homily, Pope Francis preached on the divine power and wisdom in contrast with the human folly that believes itself sufficient, especially when it is powerful. “The truth,” said Pope Francis, “is that all of us need the power and wisdom of God revealed by Jesus on the Cross.”
“Here in Iraq,” Pope Francis went on to say: “how many of your brothers and sisters, friends and fellow citizens bear the wounds of war and violence, wounds both visible and invisible! The temptation is to react to these and other painful experiences with human power, human wisdom.”
At the end of the mass the Pope astonished crowds as he did a lap of honour in a golf buggy in front of the President of the Kurdish Regional Government.
Earlier the Pope visited a region that witnessed some of the worst atrocities and destruction by ISIS jihadists after they scythed. into north Iraq from Syria.
In Mosul, where locals have a reputation for living life to the full and smiling through adversity, youngsters resplendent in their Sunday best, joined moms and dads in song and waved palm branches to give the Pope a joyous welcome amid rubble and bombed out buildings.
‘Oh Lord, he’s standing in the heart of Mosul,’ “Santo Padre, I can’t believe my eyes!’ said one Christian Tweeter.
Arguably the most powerfully symbolic moment came when the Pope led prayers in Church Square, sitting on a white chair on a raised red carpeted platform dwarfed by collapsed buildings. The cross he unveiled had been made from wood from ruined churches.
Referring to the dark days of ISIS occupation the Pope said: “How merciless it is that this nation, the cradle of civilisation, ought to have been troubled by so barbarous a blow, with historical locations of worship destroyed and lots of hundreds of individuals – Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others – forcibly displaced or killed.”
The Pope released a dove of peace high into the skies over Mosul and for the first time on this trip it was safe enough for him to abandon his armoured car to tour the Old City in a golf buggy, to see for himself the devastation wrought by ISIS and conflict which ousted them, including the ruined Syriac Catholic Al-Tahera church.
Continuing the theme of his whole mission: “We are all brothers,’ the Pope spoke today about the destruction hatred between communities brings. “Fraternity is extra sturdy than fratricide,” he said.
The Pope would have been delighted to hear decorative gold crosses used in the Church Square ceremony were created by 22-year old sculptor Omar, 22, one of hundreds of Muslim volunteers who’ve been working to restore Christian churches for more than two years.
“It’s a great honour to receive the Pope here in Mosul. Different faiths must work together,” he said.
Qaraqosh, 35 kilometers east of Mosul, was over-run by ISIS on August 6th 2014. Every family who could flee left the city, many of those who stayed and refused to convert to the jihadists’ extreme version of Islam were shot or beheaded. Women and young girls were taken as sex slaves. Churches were desecrated, icons and chalices used for target practice.
The Pope travelled by helicopter across the Nineveh plains to Qaraqosh to hear testimonies from families and to pray in the Church of the Immaculate Conception.
Thousands thronged the route of the motorcade which appeared more presidential in style than papal.
As the Pope’s armoured limousine and backup vehicles slowly wound into town, a phalanx of around 30 bodyguards walked in step either side – a chill reminder that the so-called Islamic State remain active less than 40 kilometers from Qaraqosh, and may well have sleeper cells in the city.
More doves of peace were released as crowds chanted: “Hallelujah! Papa Francis,” as the Pope passed by. Others who couldn’t get close watched on a giant TV screen.
During the church ceremony the Pope urged the Christian communities not to give up hope despite the horrors they’d endured.
He said: “Certainly, there will be moments when faith can waiver, when it seems that God does not see or act. This was true for you in the darkest days of the war, and it is true too in these days of global health crisis and great insecurity. At times like these, remember that Jesus is by your side. Do not stop dreaming. Do not give up. Do not lose hope.”
As a further boost to the Christians of Qaraqosh, the Pope was able to return a sacred manuscript saved from ISIS jihadists which had been restored in Italy.
The book, Sidra, written in the ancient language of Aramaic and dating to the 14th and 15th century, was one of the oldest books in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, and was saved by local priests. It contains liturgical prayers for Easter services.
In terms of numbers, the Pope has attracted the biggest crowds so far in this trip, partly because there are far more Christians in the north of Iraq, which is now home to thousands who’ve sought sanctuary there.
And the semi-autonomous Kurdish Government has also given sanctuary to Christians fleeing ongoing fighting in Syria.
The Pope returns to Baghdad and departs for Rome Monday, having wound up what will be seen as a highly successful four-day historic pilgrimage which achieved his goals of bringing hope to beleaguered Christian communities in Iraq and laid significant foundations for closer harmony between Christians and Muslims.
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