Pope Francis was wrapping up his visit to Iraq on Sunday, drawing thousands to a rebuilt churches, squares and an open-air sports venue as he urged Christians to forgive the oppression wrought during the brutal reign of the Islamic State.
The nation of 40 million people includes just a few hundred thousand Christians, a fraction of the number before nearly two decades of war since the U.S. invasion in 2003.
In 2014, the Islamic State seized Mosul and many Christian towns in the region, killing thousands and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee. Scores of historical sites were severely damaged or destroyed.
“Here in Mosul, the tragic consequences of war and hostility are all too evident,” the pope said at Church Square. “How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people – Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, who were cruelly eliminated by terrorism, and others – forcibly displaced or killed.”
Francis said “fraternity is more durable than fratricide” and peace is more powerful than war.
Pope Francis, Iraqi Shiite leader: Unifying message comes from historic meeting
Francis was on a four-day visit to Iraq, brushing aside security concerns and rising coronavirus infections in the Arab country to show support for its shrinking Christian community.
On Saturday, Francis met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite Muslims, at his home in the holy city of Najaf in central Iraq. Francis remarked on the “dark clouds of terrorism, war and violence” in Iraq, saying all its ethnic and religious communities have suffered.
“Yet, even at that dark time, some stars kept shining,” the pope said. “I think of the young Muslim volunteers of Mosul, who helped to repair churches and monasteries, building fraternal friendships on the rubble of hatred, and those Christians and Muslims who today are restoring mosques and churches together.”
Sistani said the responsibility to present a unified message to prevent persecution falls on religious leaders of all faiths.
“Religious and spiritual leadership must play a big role to put a stop to tragedy,” Sistani said in a statement after the meeting.