A jam-packed final full day of Pope Francis’s historic visit
By John Cookson
— Baghdad — Pope Francis is spending his last full day in Iraq by visiting two northern cities brutalised by jihadists in a wave of terror and destruction.
Beleaguered Christian communities in the north of Iraq hope today’s pilgrimage by the Pope will not only help the healing process but also draw world attention to their continuing persecution.
In Mosul, Francis will honour the dead at a ceremony in the square of Hosh Al-Bieaa, surrounded by churches vandalised by ISIS and left in ruins.
And at Qaraqosh he’ll meet Christians who’ve returned after the horrors and will bless a church set on fire and used as a firing range during the 2014 onslaught.
He’ll round off a day full of emotion by celebrating Mass at a football stadium named after an assassinated Assyrian Christian politician in Iraqi Kurdistan’s principal city, Erbil.
Ahead of his trip north, at an interfaith event in Ur on Saturday, Pope Francis praised combined efforts to rebuild Mosul.
“I think of the young Muslim volunteers of Mosul, who helped to repair churches and monasteries, building fraternal friendships on the rubble of hatred, and those Christians and Muslims who today are restoring mosques and churches together.”
When Saddam Hussein was toppled in the US-led invasion of 2003 Mosul’s Christians numbered about 45,000, but many fled the turmoil that followed when fighters of the so-called Islamic State swept into Iraq in the summer of 2014 and their leader Abu Bakir Al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate in Mosul’s Al Nouri mosque in June that year.
The jihadists were eventually routed from the city in joint military action by US led forces three years later.
Since then, Mosul — Iraq’s second city — has been rebuilding.
St Thomas’s, a 150-year old Syriac Catholic Church, was among those looted by the jihadists. Muslim volunteers have been helping restore the church and reassure Christians who fled that it’s safe to return. About 50 Christian families have gone back and more commute to Mosul every day to work or study from Kurdish areas further north.
In August of 2014 in Qaraqosh, 35 kilometers, east of Mosul, ISIS fighters expelled 45,000 Christians. Those who weren’t able to escape were forced to covert to the jihadists’ version of Islam or be put to death. Crosses were torn down, precious manuscripts were thrown on bonfires. ISIS turned churches such as the Immaculate Conception into a firing range.
As in Mosul restoration of Qaraqosh’s churches is underway — albeit slowly — and most Christians have returned.
About the suffering of Christian communities in Mosul and the Ninevah Plain, a defiant Archbishop Bashar Warda said recently: ‘Islamic State, were the personification of the devil and were our tormentors. They confiscated our present while while seeking to wipe out our history and destroy our future.’
‘Although we’re scourged and wounded – somehow we’re still here.’
The Pope’s visit today will undoubtedly bring hope and joy to the Christian communities of northern Iraq – but tempered by much sadness about the horrors of the past.