Pope Francis ended his visit to Iraq on Sunday and drew thousands to rebuilt churches, plazas and an open-air sports venue as he urged Christians to forgive the oppression that was inflicted during the brutal reign of the Islamic State.
The nation of 40 million people is only a few hundred thousand Christians, a fraction of the number nearly two decades ago of war since the US invasion in 2003.
In 2014, the Islamic State captured Mosul and many Christian cities in the region, killing thousands and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee. Numerous historical sites were badly damaged or destroyed.
“Here in Mosul, the tragic consequences of war and hostility are all too obvious,” said the Pope in the church square. “How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been hit by such a barbaric blow, in which ancient places of worship were destroyed and many thousands of people – Muslims, Christians, Yazidis who were cruelly eliminated by terrorism, and others – forcibly driven out or killed. “
Francis said, “Fraternity is more permanent than fratricide” and peace is more powerful than war.
Francis was on a four-day visit to Iraq, brushing aside security concerns and rising coronavirus infections in the Arab country to show his support for the shrinking Christian community.
On Saturday, Francis met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Shiite Muslims in Iraq at his home in the holy city of Najaf in central Iraq. Noting the “dark clouds of terrorism, war and violence” in Iraq, Francis said all ethnic and religious communities had suffered.
“But even in this dark time, some stars continued to shine,” said the Pope. “I think of the young Muslim volunteers from Mosul who helped repair churches and monasteries, build fraternal friendships on the rubble of hatred, and the Christians and Muslims who are now jointly restoring mosques and churches.”
Sistani said the responsibility to present a unified message to prevent persecution rests with religious leaders of all faiths.
“Religious and spiritual leadership must play a big role in stopping the tragedy,” Sistani said in a statement after the meeting.