QARAQOSH, Iraq— Pope Francis’s extraordinary visit to Iraq culminated on Sunday with dramatic gestures of support for the country’s besieged Christian minority, including visits to churches destroyed by Islamic State militants, and was due to end with Mass in a soccer stadium with 10,000 of the faithful.
The pope’s visit to Mosul came with deep emotional and political significance for Iraq and for the broader Middle East, highlighting the struggles of a city still rebuilding after years of brutality under Islamic State and destruction during the battle to liberate it.
In Mosul, the pope spoke against a backdrop of ruins in a section of the city where Islamic State seized one church and used it as a prison. The area’s churches were also destroyed during the battles to reclaim the city in 2016 and 2017.
“How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people—Muslims, Christians, the Yazidis, who were cruelly annihilated by terrorism, and others—forcibly displaced or killed,” the pope said. “If God is the God of peace—for so he is—then it is wrong for us to wage war in his name.”
Islamic State conquered Mosul in 2014 as the extremist group swept across Iraq and Syria and launched a global campaign of terrorist attacks. It was in Mosul that the group’s former leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the establishment of a caliphate, claiming the mantle of Islamic empires from history.
Once a city of more than a million people, Mosul was the largest population center captured by Islamic State, and was the heart of its experiment in harsh religious government. The organization blew up historic landmarks, drove out Christians, and committed genocide against the Yazidi religious minority, according to the United Nations.
An estimated 500,000 of Mosul’s residents, including more than 120,000 Christians, fled the Islamic State regime, whose record of destruction there includes the tomb of the Old Testament Prophet Jonah, thousands of books and rare manuscripts from the city’s library and part of the walls of ancient Nineveh.
Backed by U.S. and coalition air power, Iraqi forces reclaimed Mosul in 2017 after a nine-month battle that resulted in some of the most intense urban warfare since World War II. The battle left the city in ruins.
By visiting Mosul, Pope Francis called attention to the plight of a city that is still struggling to rebuild and where many residents feel neglected by the central government in Baghdad. Years after the liberation of the city, the reconstruction effort has been hampered by disorganization and a lack of resources.
The pope acknowledged Muslims who have helped their Christian neighbors resettle in Mosul, which he said showed that “the real identity of this city is that of harmonious coexistence between people of different backgrounds and cultures.”
After the ceremony, the pope inspected ruined churches and stopped to pray in silence in front of one of them.
The pope also visited a Catholic cathedral in Qaraqosh on the Nineveh Plain, the traditional heartland of Christianity in Iraq. The cathedral, which Islamic State forces used as a shooting range, is still being rebuilt. Since the 2017 defeat of Islamic State, Iran-backed militias and Kurdish security forces have hindered Christians and other minorities from resettling in the area. According to the Vatican, less than half of Qaraqosh’s pre-2014 population has returned to the city.
Iraq’s Christian population has dwindled from an estimated 1.4 million before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to 250,000 or fewer today. Many have emigrated to the U.S. or other Western countries. At Qaraqosh’s cathedral, Pope Francis appealed to them not to abandon their ancestral land.
“Now is the time to rebuild and to start afresh, relying on the grace of God, who guides the destinies of all individuals and peoples,” the pope said.
Later on Sunday, a Mass was due to take place in Erbil in the country’s northern autonomous region of Kurdistan, where more than one million Iraqis displaced from other parts of Iraq still reside years after the defeat of Islamic State. Tens of thousands of them are Christians, most of them living in Erbil.
—Nasir Sadiq in Erbil contributed to this article.
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