World Pope Francis prays for 'victims of war' in north Iraq
Francis prepares first-ever papal visit to Iraq
Pope Francis is to start the first-ever papal visit to Iraq on Friday, an act of solidarity with an ancient but dwindling Christian community and a symbolic outreach to Muslims. At the time, Pope Francis endorsed military action against IS and considered visiting northern Iraq in solidarity with Christians there. Video: Iraqi Christians, decimated by Islamist violence, prepare for pope's visit (Reuters) Your browser does not support this video That trip never materialised, but Francis has kept a close eye on Iraq, condemning the killing of unarmed protesters during mass anti-government rallies from 2019.
(Video by Sky News)
Pope Francis prayed Sunday for "victims of war" in northern Iraq, where the Islamic State group ravaged one of the world's oldest Christian communities until the jihadists' defeat three years ago.
With the partially collapsed walls of the centuries-old Al-Tahera (Immaculate Conception) Church behind him, Pope Francis pleaded for Christians in Iraq and the Middle East to stay in their homelands.
The 84-year-old pontiff said the "tragic" exodus of Christians from Iraq and the wider region "does incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned, but also to the society they leave behind".
Pope Francis goes to Iraq to rally fading Christians amid pandemic
Pope Francis heads to Iraq on Friday to urge the country’s dwindling number of Christians to stay put and help rebuild the country after years of war and persecution, brushing aside the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns to make his first-ever papal visit. Iraqis were keen to welcome him and the global attention his visit will bring, with banners and posters hanging high in central Baghdad, and billboards depicting Francis with the slogan "We are all Brothers" decorating the main thoroughfare.
The IS onslaught forced hundreds of thousands of Christians in northern Iraq's Nineveh province to flee. The country's Christian population has shrunk to fewer than 400,000 from around 1.5 million before the US-led invasion of 2003.
The faithful had gathered on Sunday in the courtyard of the Al-Tahera Church, whose roof collapsed during fighting against IS in 2017. It is one of the oldest of at least 14 churches in Nineveh province that were destroyed by the jihadists.
The heaviest deployment of security personnel yet has been mobilised to protect Francis in northern Iraq on what is perhaps the riskiest day of his historic trip to a country where state forces are still hunting IS sleeper cells.
Fact Check: Was Pope Francis Once a Nightclub Bouncer?
Pope Francis trended on Twitter Friday amid his visit to Iraq. The day prior, one social media user declared that he used to work an odd job that could be considered surprising for a pope."I come as a penitent, asking forgiveness from Heaven and our brothers for so much destruction and cruelty; a pilgrim of peace, in the name of Christ, Prince of Peace. How we have prayed, in these years, for peace in #Iraq! God always listens. It is up to us to walk His paths," the pope tweeted Friday.
But the Pope appeared not to be fazed, as he was driven around Mosul's historic Old City -- largely razed during the grinding fight to dislodge the jihadists -- in a golf cart.
- 'Do not lose hope!' -
The visit to the north embodies a cause close to the Pope's heart: Iraq's traumatised Christian community.
Video: Watch: Pope Francis arrives in Baghdad at start of four-day visit (NBC News)
Watching from afar as IS swept across Nineveh in 2014, Pope Francis said at the time he was ready to come and meet the displaced and other victims of war in a show of solidarity.
He finally fulfilled his promise on Sunday, holding a prayer service in Qaraqosh, whose ancient church -- named Al-Tahera, like the one in Mosul -- was torched by the jihadists, who largely also destroyed the town itself.
Pope Francis meets with senior Iraqi Shi'ite cleric
Pope Francis has met and spoken to Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani - southern Iraq's top shi'ite cleric - in a historic meeting of Catholic and Shi'ite Muslim leadership.It's part of the first ever papal visit to the Gulf state this weekend.
Residents of Qaraqosh have since rebuilt their homes with little government help and Al-Tahera too has been refurbished, its imposing marble floors and internal colonnades buffed to host its most important guest yet.
Dressed in traditional embroidered robes, hundreds of the faithful -- who speak a modern dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ -- welcomed the pontiff with hymns and olive branches.
"Do not stop dreaming! Do not give up! Do not lose hope!" Francis urged those gathered.
"Now is the time to rebuild and to start afresh," he said.
Pope Francis's trip to Iraq as a "pilgrim of peace" aims to reassure the country's dwindling Christian community, but also to expand his dialogue with other religions.
On Saturday, the leader of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics met Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric, the reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who agreed that Iraq's Christians should be able to live in "peace".
Incense and ululations: Pope meets his Iraqi flock
In the sun-soaked courtyard of Baghdad's St Joseph Cathedral, members of Iraq's dwindling Christian community waited in solemn silence for a man they'd never dreamt they would see. Some of the women, who appeared to outnumber the men, wore dainty black or white veils, a sign of respect for the leader of their faith, 84-year-old Pope Francis. They sat on wooden benches decorated with bright flowers and fingered rosaries or small prayer books as they counted down the minutes for the pontiff to arrive. Then, suddenly, the quiet was shattered by shrill ululations as hundreds of hands spontaneously flew toward the sky.
"We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion," Francis said at an interfaith service in the ancient site of Ur later that morning.
- Holy mass in stadium -
Francis landed early on Sunday at the airport in the Kurdish regional capital of Arbil, which was targeted just a few weeks ago by a volley of rockets that killed two people, the latest in a series of strikes blamed on pro-Iranian forces.
He held a brief meeting with regional president Nechirvan Barzani and his cousin, the prime minister Masrour Barzani.
Many thousands of troops and police have been deployed as the pope has criss-crossed Iraq, taking planes, helicopters and armoured convoys to cover more than 1,400 kilometres (870 miles) in-country.
The other major challenge is the Covid-19 pandemic, with Iraq gripped by a second wave bringing around 5,000 new cases per day.
Authorities have imposed a nationwide lockdown -- ostensibly to keep cases down but also to help control movements of crowds during the high-profile visit.
While Francis has been vaccinated, Iraq has only just begun a modest inoculation campaign and there are fears that the crowds gathering to see him could amount to super-spreader events.
The biggest event yet will be on Sunday afternoon, when several thousand people will gather at Arbil's Franso Hariri stadium for the Pope's last mass in Iraq.
Arbil has been a relative haven of stability and a place of refuge for many Christians who fled IS.
Pope's Iraq Trip Must Highlight Precarious Situation of Assyrian Christians | Opinion .
Rather than highlight the plight of Assyrians and other Christian groups in the Middle East, Pope Francis' visit may end up worsening their situation. If this ongoing ethnic cleansing of Assyrians and other minorities from Iraq continues under a veneer of respectability, this will ultimately lead to their complete erasure from their ancestral homeland, as was the case with the Jews of Iraq.Bradley Martin is the executive director for the Near East Center for Strategic Studies.The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.