Pope Francis in Iraq: Hope beats hate, peace beats war

The pontiff's message was of forgiveness, hope and perseverance as he toured northern Iraq

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Through the shattered streets of Mosul, Pope Francis’s message of forgiveness and coexistence rang out on Sunday as the pontiff toured northern Iraq on the final full day of his visit.

Meeting Christians who were returning to rebuild their lives three years after the fall of ISIS, Pope Francis urged all communities to come together to preserve the living soul of Iraq.

He declared hope to be "more powerful than hatred, peace more powerful than war".

“Such a richly diverse cultural and religious fabric – as this is – is weakened by the loss of any of its members, no matter how small. As with one of your intricately designed carpets, if one small thread is removed it damages the entire carpet,” he said at a prayer service for the victims of the war.

“How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilisation, 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 annihilated by terrorism, and others forcibly displaced or killed,” Francis said.

The Pope's visit to the Church Square in Mosul, surrounded by damaged and ruined religious buildings, shone a spotlight on the work being done to rebuild the town, UAE Minister of Culture and Youth Noura Al Kaabi and Unesco Director General Audrey Azoulay said of the visit.

The UAE is funding the Unesco reconstruction of religious buildings in the area that were destroyed by ISIS.

After Mosul, the Pope took a short helicopter flight to Qaraqosh – once the capital of Christian Iraq until it was almost wiped out by ISIS.

“The road to a full recovery may still be long, but I ask you, please, not to grow discouraged,” he said from an ancient church burnet by ISIS extremists as they overran the town in 2014.

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

The gathering was a reminder of how much was nearly lost in Iraq with the ISIS invasion and also how far it has come in the few short years since – even if the road to reconstruction is long.

Thousands gathered along the main streets to welcome the pontiff, calling out and singing as he passed. Pope Francis stopped to bless children and the atmosphere was lively and happy.

"Since the war, I did not see the people of this town feeling so much joy," said local priest Father Roni Momika, adding that several thousand attended Mass in Qaraqosh today, hoping to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis.

The 84-year-old pontiff set foot in areas where 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 Qaraqosh's alternative name.

“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.”

After the visit, the Pope headed back to Erbil to celebrate Mass for more than 10,000 Christians at the Franso Hariri Stadium.

He circled the stadium in the Popemobile – a customised white G-Wagon – before the service that included a homily calling, yet again, to look ahead together to better times.

“Here in Iraq, how many of your brothers and sisters, friends and fellow citizens bear the wounds of war and violence, wounds both visible and invisible?” he asked. “The temptation is to react to these and other painful experiences with human power and human wisdom. Instead, Jesus shows us the way of God – the path he took, the path on which he calls on us to follow.”

The Pope gave more insight into why he was so keen to visit Iraq.

“Even in the midst of great poverty and difficulty, many of you have generously offered concrete help and solidarity to the poor and suffering – that is one of the reasons I was compelled to come as a pilgrim, to thank you.

"It is clear that the Church is alive, that Christ is here in his holy people. I commend you, your families, your communities to the maternal protection of the Virgin Mary, who was united with her son in his passion and death.”

In concluding the Mass, the Pope vowed to keep Iraq in his heart even when he returns to the Vatican on Monday.

"In my time among you, I have heard voices of sorrow and loss, but also voices of hope and consolation," he said.

"Now the time draws near for my return to Rome. Yet Iraq will always remain with me, in my heart."