Pope Francis in Mosul urges Christians to return home after ISIS

Pontiff mounted a stage surrounded by bombed-out churches to deliver a message of peace and unity

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Pope Francis on Sunday prayed for victims of war in Iraq and the region during a visit to Mosul’s historic but shattered church square and called for Christians to return to the city to help rebuild.

On the final full day of his landmark visit to Iraq, the pontiff travelled to the country's north, which has historically been home to the majority of the country's Christians. His visit to Iraq is meant to be a morale boost for the country's dwindling Christian population after years of war and the 2014 ISIS invasion, urging them to stay.

In touching scenes that would have been unthinkable to imagine a few years ago, the Pope mounted a stage in Mosul surrounded by bombed-out churches and other buildings to deliver a message of peace and unity.

Pope Francis releases a white dove after praying for ISIS victims in Mosul

Pope Francis releases a white dove after praying for ISIS victims in Mosul

“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 annihilated by terrorism, and others forcibly displaced or killed,” Pope Francis said.

The square where he spoke is home to four different churches, Syro-Catholic, Armenian-Orthodox, Syro-Orthodox and Chaldean, each of them left in ruins.

The Pope was surrounded by collapsed walls of the centuries-old Al Tahera Church (or Immaculate Conception in English) that was once used by ISIS as a jail.

He called on Christians to return home especially as the religion was born in the ancient land that is modern-day Iraq.

“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.”

Final preparations underway in north Iraq for pope visit

Final preparations underway in north Iraq for pope visit

In recent years the Middle East’s Christian population has been on the decline as the region is ravaged by war and extremism.

The exodus of Christians from Iraq and the broader Middle East "does incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned, but also to the society they leave behind,” said the Pope.

Prior to Pope Francis’ speech, Reverend Raed Adel, the only Syriac Catholic priest in the city, shared his story to the audience.

He said he fled along with most of his congregation of 500 Christian families after ISIS entered the region.

Father Raed said he then returned to Mosul three years ago after the insurgents were defeated but said only 70 Christian families remain and the rest are afraid to return and many have fled the country.

“Your holiness, coexistence in the city of Mosul today is not just a slogan but deep attitudes of love and true peace that I have experienced with my Muslim brothers and sisters in this afflicted city,” he told the Pope. “[When] I returned to Mosul three years ago after the city’s liberation my Muslim brothers welcomed me with great respect and love.”

Pope Francis thanked Father Raed for showing the public that it is “possible to have hope in reconciliation and new life.”

In 2014, ISIS overran Mosul and declared a state stretching from territory in northern Syria deep into Iraq’s north and west.

It was from Mosul’s Al Nouri mosque that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, made his only public appearance when he gave a Friday sermon calling on all Muslims to follow him as “caliph.”

"Lord, in this city, we see two signs of perennial human desire for closeness to you, Al Nouri Mosque with Al Hadba minaret and Our Lady of the Hour Church, whose clock for 100 years has reminded passers-by that life is short and time is precious,” Pope Francis said.

Father Olivier, French Dominican and head of Our Lady of the Hour Church, told The National the focus of Pope Francis' prayer was on the most vulnerable.

“Getting out of the square, the pope stopped the car to greet poor children and their families living around the area. He came to see those who suffered, not just the officials, but also the simple people of Mosul’s Old City,” Father Olivier, who was among the crowd, said.

“Those who came back to the city are not prominent figures; they are very simple people and if life is possible for them then it will be possible for all,” he said.

Father Olivier, who is overseeing the reconstruction of the church, met the Pope and gave him a present from the Sunni Waqaf who part of the restoration of the Al Nouri Mosque.

“It was a good sign to give a present to the Pope, something from both Muslims and Christians there because we share the same suffering in the past and we are in the same boat,” he said.

Children chase Pope's convoy in Iraq's Qaraqosh

Children chase Pope's convoy in Iraq's Qaraqosh

In 2018, the UAE announced it would fund the Unesco-led reconstruction of the Al Nouri Mosque in Mosul’s Old Town as part of a project that was expanded to include two churches in the square where the pope was speaking on Sunday and several other buildings.

Al Tahera Church and Al Saa’a, Our Lady of the Hour Church in English, are part of that project.

For his final night in Iraq, Erbil's Franso Hariri football stadium will see the pope leading a Mass.

At a Mass on Saturday in Baghdad, Pope Francis spoke to Iraq's Chaldean Catholics of one of the core tenets of their faith.

Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani discussed the challenge faced by humanity and called for peaceful coexistence.

Pope Francis leaves the country on Monday from Baghdad airport.