QARAQOSH, Iraq – From the rubble of a ruined church, Pope Francis led prayers for victims of war in Iraq’s battle-scarred city of Mosul on Sunday, as part of a historic visit intended to bring solace to a Christian community that the Islamic State militant group tried to wipe out.
Francis addressed congregants against a backdrop of destruction: The church from which he spoke was once used as a jail by Islamic State militants and later destroyed in a U.S.-led coalition airstrike. As the pope arrived Sunday, joyous trills and choral song echoed high above the bullet-pocked walls.
“Today we raise our voices in prayer to Almighty God for all the victims of war and armed conflict. Here in Mosul, the tragic consequences of war and hostility are all too evident,” Francis said in a soft voice.
The final full day of Francis’s trip through Iraq, the first to the country by a pope, was marked by contrast – the leader of the Roman Catholic Church coming to an area that only four years earlier was controlled by a terrorist group that killed religious minorities and vowed in its propaganda to “conquer Rome,” symbolic of the Christian West.
For Francis, the prayer in Mosul is likely to become one of the lasting images of his papacy: a moment when a global leader arrived in a broken place after much of the world’s attention had turned away from it. The pontiff already had a reputation for risky travel – a Rio de Janeiro slum, a war zone in the Central African Republic – but this time it was his message as much as the shattered setting that made it memorable.
“Hope is more powerful than hatred,” he told the crowd.
In his first two stops Sunday, both in territory formerly controlled by the Islamic State, the pope was welcomed by jubilant crowds. “Our gathering here today shows that terrorism and death never have the last word,” Francis said at midday, speaking to a church community in Qaraqosh.
As night fell and he wrapped up his trip, Francis told a packed audience in Irbil, the capital of the autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan, that the scenes he had witnessed here would stay with him.
“Iraq will always remain with me, in my heart,” he said. He urged Iraqis to “work together in unity for a future of peace and prosperity that leaves no one behind and discriminates against no one.”
In the aftermath of the Islamic State’s defeat, much of northern Iraq is far from recovered. Disputes between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds over territory and ideals still simmer. More than a million people remain displaced. The militant group has been pushed from its territory, but tiny pockets of loyalists work underground. Christians, under the threat of conversion and violence, have fled the region in droves – a dynamic that church officials hope Francis’s trip can help reverse.
Security forces fanned out through Mosul and beyond Sunday, a reminder that threats remain even if Iraq is no longer at war. A highway to Qaraqosh had turned into a surreal mix of herders, sheep and heavily armed soldiers standing lookout on grassy slopes.
There were signs of the trauma inflicted by war and the Islamic State all around.
The U.S.-led coalition, which backed Iraqi security forces in recapturing territory from the militant group, had predicted that the battle for Mosul would be swift. Instead, it was a punishing fight, costing thousands of lives and lasting longer than the siege of Stalingrad as Islamic State extremists fought alleyway-by-alleyway and to the death.
In the west of the city, where the pope led his prayer, some homes remain twists of rubble and rebar. Many families have been left to pick up the pieces without government support.
The cathedral hosting Francis in Qaraqosh had been used by the Islamic State until 2016 as a shooting range. A priest at the church, Petros Sheto, said church members, returning after the militants’ defeat, found “everything destroyed – no sign of life at all.”
Churches had been burned and crosses smashed across altars. “You cannot picture,” he said. “It was just buildings without people. It was like hell.”
Francis’s trip is his first abroad since the coronavirus pandemic began, and he has used his time in Iraq to appeal for coexistence and an end to religious violence. On Saturday, he met privately with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the pre-eminent religious figure for Iraqi Shiites, who rarely opens his door for global leaders, political or religious. The pontiff also convened an interreligious event in the southern plain of Ur, the purported birthplace of Abraham.
The visit has inspired pride across Iraq, with many seeing the tour as a rare moment in which their homeland is making headlines for a story not dominated by violence. But government preparations have also been criticized. Iraq’s infrastructure has been crippled by decades of corruption and neglect; ahead of the pope’s visit, authorities resurfaced roads along which he would be driven and planted flowers along thoroughfares he would see.
In an alleyway by Baghdad’s St Joseph’s church last week, Christian residents joked that they were happy with the pope’s arrival because it had provided Iraq’s government with the impetus to pave their streets.
Iraq’s Christian community has shrunk sevenfold in three decades – partly because of violent persecution – as hundreds of thousands have sought refuge elsewhere. On Sunday, the last priest left in Mosul, the Rev. Raed Kallo, said that only 70 Christian families remained there.
There were also seeds of hope: In Qaraqosh, Fatin Putrus, 24, said she saw normal daily life returning to the city. The lights were on. Singing rang out from the church loudspeakers. As the town readied for the pope’s arrival, families lined the roads with balloons and banners.
But Putrus also lived with the memories of three years on the run, fleeing with only an ID and three pairs of clothing, then returning to her city to find much of it – including her home – torched.
“I don’t have even a photo from my childhood,” she said.
Putrus said her six uncles had left for other countries, with no plans to return. Same with many of her friends. So much had been lost, she said, that she didn’t know how to piece it back together.
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Loveluck reported from Baghdad. The Washington Post’s Mustafa Salim in Baghdad contributed to this report.