Pope Francis in Iraq brings hope to town crushed by ISIS

Town of Qaraqosh was once largest Christian community in Iraq, then ISIS destroyed it. Pope Francis’s visit may boost the revival, residents tell Gareth Browne

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A jubilant priest skips along the street, whipping up a crowd. The hymns of a young choir pierce the morning cold.

Not long ago, this scene would have been impossible. Barely five years have passed since ISIS gunmen patrolled the streets of Qaraqosh, a town known as the home of Iraq’s Christian people.

Nestled on the Nineveh plains east of Mosul, it was overrun in ISIS’s rampage across Iraq in 2014.

The militants replaced crosses with their black flag and thousands of Christians fled.

Those unable to escape were killed or subjugated under the extremists' Christian tax.

Churches were ransacked, hymn books and benches were torched. One church was turned into a bomb factory.

Today, the Pope was in town as part of a historic trip, the first by a serving pontiff to Iraq.

Pope Francis, 84, trod in areas most western diplomats and foreign delegations refuse to include on their itineraries. They say it is too dangerous.

"Our people expected a visit from the Pope to Iraq but we didn't expect that he would visit Al Hamdaniya," Issam Bahnam, the Mayor of the town told The National using another name for Qaraqosh.

“In protocol, the Pope visits the capital of countries he arrives to, but a small city like Baghdeda or Qaraqosh is something unheard of. This visit will erase the pain our people went through.”

There were many reasons the trip might could been cancelled, with a precarious security situation and a critical healthcare crisis during a global pandemic being but two of them.

Then, just days before Pope Francis’s arrival, the Vatican’s envoy Mitja Leskovar tested positive for Covid-19.

It seemed the trip would be called off at any moment.

Yet so in need of a lift were Iraq’s Christians, let alone the rest of the country, that the Vatican insisted the trip go ahead even if it did so with the tightest of precautions.

Pope Francis arrived by helicopter from nearby Mosul, a flight of just a few minutes.

Then a meandering convoy of 50 vehicles, loaded with Iraqi Special Forces, Kurdish Peshmerga units and intelligence agents, escorted him the few hundred metres from the helicopter to Qaraqosh’s Church of the Immaculate Conception.

Above, low-flying helicopters with marksman hovered. Every person in town had either a gun or a balloon.

As the papal convoy passed crowds lining the rubble city’s main street, there were screams of ecstasy, even relief.

“Bring him to bless my baby,” shouted one woman, dangling her infant over the fence.

Although the effects of the country’s brutal war against ISIS continue to be present, with hundreds still missing and much of the town destroyed, it was forgiveness and perseverance the Pope was preaching.

"The road to a full recovery may still be long but I ask you, please, not to grow discouraged," he told those gathered in the church.

"What is needed is the ability to forgive, but also the courage not to give up."

The Vatican hopes that the visit might help stem a continuing departure of Christians from Iraq, a community that once numbered 1.5 million but had fallen to a few hundred thousand even before ISIS invaded.

A dire economy, political instability and a lack of reconstruction in places such as Qaraqosh leave few prospects for communities to return home.

Asylum with the support of churches in countries such as Canada and Australia is the most enticing option for an increasing number.

Mirron Ayoud said that although many of his friends had fled Iraq, the Pope’s visit encouraged him to stay.

“I’m 25, I don’t want to migrate," Mr Ayoud said. "I want to stay in my city, in my country.

“If things are stable and fine in Iraq I will never leave, and perhaps some of my friends will come back.

"They will see the Pope is here and they will come back and rebuild the city with me.

“Within 24 hours, everything became different in the whole city. The Pope has achieved something no Iraqi has managed yet – he gave us hope."

Yet, whether this euphoria can lead to any lasting, meaningful change is a question for another day, says Joni Kochar, 33, who waited for hours sitting on a wall to catch a glimpse of the Pope.

“I came with my friends to see the Pope and that’s what I did. I saw him wave and I’m happy,” Ms Kochar says.

“Tomorrow I’ll work out how to fix my community. Today I’ll enjoy the party.”

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