The program of Francis’ three-day pilgrimage to Iraq ended with a holy mass and a papamobile ride to the stadium in Irbil. On Monday, the Pope will return to the Vatican. On Sunday, he visited cities that were once occupied and destroyed by militants of the so-called Islamic State. He was greeted there by crowds of the faithful, which contrasted with his visit to Baghdad, where the streets were deserted and sometimes cordoned off by security. In Mosul, Francis recalled that “peace is stronger than war”, and in Karakosh, the center of Christians in Iraq, stressed that “terrorism and death never have the last word.”
The official program of Francis’ three-day pilgrimage to Iraq. On Sunday morning, the Pope arrived in Mosul in the northern part of the country – a city that was occupied by the so-called Islamic State (IS) in 2014. During the three-year occupation, crimes against the civilian population took place there. Half a million people fled, including over 120,000 Christians.
The ancient city was systematically destroyed by the jihadists, their symbols of identity and monuments. In July 2017, after nine months of fighting, Mosul was liberated by the Iraqi army. The offensive was the largest military operation in Iraq since US troops left the country in 2011. The city is being rebuilt.
“Brotherhood is stronger than fratricide”
In the square of four churches in Mosul, the Pope said a prayer for the victims of the war. Destroyed temples are: Syrian Catholic, Armenian-Orthodox, Chaldean and Syrian Orthodox.
Francis heard the stories of the forced displacement of many Christian families from their homes, but also of brotherhood in living together with Muslims after returning to liberated Mosul, which turned into a city of rubble. – Today we raise our voices in prayer to Almighty God for all victims of war and armed conflicts. Here in Mosul, the tragic effects of the war and hostilities are all too visible, said the Pope.
– How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, was struck by such an inhuman storm in which ancient places of worship were destroyed and thousands of people, Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others, were forcibly displaced or killed – the Pope said.
He stressed that “despite everything we reaffirm our conviction that brotherhood is stronger than fratricide, that hope is stronger than death, that peace is stronger than war”.
– This conviction speaks with a voice more eloquent than the voice of hatred and violence – said Francis. “It can never be silenced with the blood shed by those who pervert God’s name by following the paths of destruction,” he added.
“I did not believe that in my beloved and trampled city by terrorists I would see the Pope”
From Mosul Francis He traveled by helicopter to the second city on the Nineveh Plain, Karakoshu, the main Christian center in Iraq. In the summer of 2014, Karakosz, 90 percent of the population, was conquered by the so-called Islamic State. Detachments of the self-proclaimed caliphate destroyed houses, churches, and a valuable library. The population fled mainly to the territories of Iraqi Kurdistan. The city was liberated by the Iraqi army in 2016. About 45 percent of the population has returned so far.
The Pope was greeted by thousands of cheering people, sometimes crying with emotion. – If only a year ago in Erbil, where I took refuge with my family, someone told me that the Pope would come to Karakosz, I would consider him a complete madman, said the man who came to the cathedral.
– This visit is like a balm for our hearts and our wounds. I do not know anyone here who would not endure the suffering that is difficult for me to talk about – added the older resident of this city. His wife emphasized: – Until the last moment I did not believe that I would see the Pope with my own eyes here, in my beloved city trampled by terrorists.
Pope: our meeting proves that terrorism and death never have the last word
For the first time since the Pope’s visit to Iraq, such crowds have taken to the streets. This was in complete contrast to Baghdad, where the streets along the route of the Holy See’s head were deserted and sometimes even cordoned off by the military with heavy equipment.
Along the route of the papal car’s journey through Karakosz, crowds of both Christians and Muslims in traditional costumes gathered. People were holding colorful balloons, Vatican flags, portraits of the pope. No sanitary regime was observed in the crowd. There was no papamobile, the Pope greeted the faithful from a locked car.
In the cathedral, devastated and burnt down during the years of terror by the self-proclaimed caliphate, the Pope met the inhabitants. Many of them have only recently returned to Iraq from exile. – Together with all people of good will, we say “no” to terrorism and the instrumentalisation of religion – Francis urged.
In the renovated and cleaned temple, the Holy Father said the Angelus prayer. – This meeting of ours proves that terrorism and death never have the last word – he said to the audience.
The papamobile pleased the faithful
In the afternoon, local time, the Pope celebrated Mass at the stadium in Erbil, located in the Kurdish Autonomous District of Iraq. The second largest stadium in Iraq seats approximately 27,000 people. Due to sanitary restrictions, less than half of the people are expected to be present in the stands.
There are signs on many chairs that advise people not to sit there. However, not all of them followed the rules of distance.
The Pope arrived at the stadium in a car convoy, but he took a papamobile to the joy of many thousands of people waiting.
The mass in Kurdistan is the only mass event of the Pope’s trip to Iraq. Emergency security measures have been implemented around the stadium. Military planes flew in the area of the facility.
“How many of your brothers and sisters, friends and fellow citizens bear the wounds of war and violence”
In his homily, the Pope referred to successive wars that devastated Iraq in recent decades. “How many of your brothers and sisters, friends and fellow citizens bear the wounds of war and violence, wounds visible and invisible,” he said. – To cleanse the heart, we need to get our hands dirty: feel responsible and not stand aside when brother and sister are suffering, he added.
Francis told the faithful that Jesus frees from such an understanding of faith, family, community, “which divides, contrasts and excludes” in order to “build a Church and society open to all and caring for our most needy brothers and sisters” . – The Lord promises us that by the power of his resurrection he can lift us and our communities from the rubble created by injustice, division and hatred – he pointed out.
The Pope expressed his appreciation for the activities of the Church in Iraq, which brings “Christ’s mercy and forgiveness” to those most in need. – Even in the face of great poverty and hardship, many of you offered concrete help and solidarity to the poor and suffering. This is one of the reasons that prompted me to come to you on pilgrimage to you, to thank you and strengthen you in faith and testimony, the Pope explained. It was in the Irbil region that thousands of inhabitants of the Christian Nineveh Plain found refuge from the terror of the so-called Islamic State.
At the end of the mass, the Pope gave a farewell speech before Monday’s departure to Rome. He especially greeted the Kurdish people. He also told the Iraqis: “In those days spent among you, I heard voices of suffering and anxiety, but I also heard voices of hope and consolation.”
He recalled the contribution of religious institutions of all faiths to the work of rebuilding the country and social rebirth. – I am asking all of you, dear brothers and sisters, to work together for a peaceful and prosperous future that would not leave anyone behind and discriminate against anyone, Francis appealed.
The prayer at the stadium ended Francis’ journey through Iraq, devastated by successive wars. The Pope will depart for Rome on Monday.
Main photo source: PAP / EPA / VATICAN MEDIA HANDOUT