MOSUL, Iraq — After the Islamic State took control of Mosul seven years ago and declared it the capital of its caliphate, the terrorist group sought to strike fear deep into the West by vowing to conquer Rome.
But with the Islamic State pushed from the city, it was Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, who on Sunday came to Mosul. In an extraordinary moment on the last full day of the first papal trip to Iraq, Francis went to the wounded heart of the country, directly addressing the suffering, persecution and sectarian conflict that have torn the nation apart.
“Now Rome has come here,” Ghazwan Yousif Baho, a local priest who invited Francis to Mosul, said as he awaited the pope’s arrival. “He will bring his blessing to spread peace and brotherhood. It’s the beginning of a new era.”
Francis is the first to make the trip. In doing so, he has sought to protect an ancient but battered and shrunken Christian community, build relations with the Muslim world and reassert himself on the global stage after being grounded for more than a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
ISIS expelled those who remained. Only about 350 Christians have returned since ISIS was driven out in 2017 — almost all of them to the more prosperous east side, which suffered far less damage.