Pope Francis arrived in northern Iraq on Sunday, where he planned to pray in the ruins of churches damaged or destroyed by extremists from the so-called Islamic State (IS) and celebrate an open-air Mass on the last day of the first-ever papal visit to the country.
The Vatican hopes the landmark visit will rally the country’s Christian communities and encourage them to stay despite decades of war and instability.
Francis has also delivered a message of inter-religious tolerance and fraternity to Muslim leaders, including in an historic meeting on Saturday with Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Francis was scheduled to the northern city of Mosul, which was heavily damaged in the war against IS, to pray for Iraq’s war victims. The setting will be a city square surrounded by the remnants of four damaged churches belonging to some of Iraq’s myriad Christian rites and denominations.
IS overran Mosul in June 2014 and declared a caliphate stretching from territory in northern Syria deep into Iraq’s north and west. It was from Mosul’s al-Nuri mosque that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his only public appearance when he gave a Friday sermon calling on all Muslims to follow him as “caliph”.
Mosul held deep symbolic importance for IS and became the bureaucratic and financial backbone of the group.
It was finally liberated in July 2017 after a ferocious nine-month battle. Between 9,000 and 11,000 civilians were killed, according to an AP investigation at the time. Al-Baghdadi was killed in a US raid in Syria in 2019.
Francis will travel by helicopter across the Nineveh plains to the small Christian community of Qaraqosh, where only a fraction of families have returned after fleeing the IS onslaught in 2014. He will hear testimonies from residents and pray in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which was torched by IS and restored in recent years.
He wraps up the day with a Mass in the stadium in Irbil, in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region, that is expected to draw as many as 10,000 people.
He arrived in Irbil early on Sunday, where he was greeted by children in traditional dress and one outfitted as a pope.