Pope's Iraq visit highlights need to restore damaged cultural sites, says Unesco

Cities like Mosul were razed to the ground and pillaged during war

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The historic visit by Pope Francis to Iraq calls attention to the dire need to restore the country's damaged landmarks, the UN's cultural agency said.

Iraq is home to thousands of archaeological sites, many of which were heavily damaged or pillaged by ISIS during its barbaric three-year rule, which ended in 2017.

"The Pope's visit touches on cultural heritage and sheds light on the importance of maintaining cultural heritage and for people to nurture and share their heritage," Unesco representative in Iraq Paolo Fontani told The National.

Mr Fontani is heading efforts to preserve ancient Iraqi heritage, with specific focus on the northern city of Mosul.

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

“This country is so rich in history and eventually would love it if other people would be interested to continue to do the work we are doing in Mosul,” he said.

"It needs so much support."

The agency launched a project in 2018 to “revive the spirit of Mosul” by focusing on rebuilding its religious heritage such as Al Nuri Mosque and Al Taheria church and Al Saa’a monastery.

Al Nuri Mosque was the site where Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi announced in 2014 that he had established a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The mosque has been restored twice – in the 1960s and the early 20th century.

Al Tahera and Al Saa’a were blown up by the insurgents.

Pope Francis stood amid the rubble left behind by ISIS in Mosul on Sunday and declared hope to be "more powerful than hatred and peace more powerful than war."

The pontiff called for  "harmonious coexistence" of people from different backgrounds and cultures while leading a prayer at thechurch square overlooking the ruins of Al Tahera Church in Mosul's Old City.

Pope Francis' four-day, six-city tour of Iraq included trips to biblical sites such as the ancient city of Ur – known to be the birthplace of prophet Abraham – where he held an inter-faith meeting with religious leaders of the country.

“It is a symbol and a great sign of encouragement for all of us who are working in Mosul to encourage people from all components of Iraq to come back and live together in peace,” Mr Fontani said.

The trip has renewed focus on Mosul’s cultural heritage that was destroyed by the terror group, and the conflict that followed after.

“It’s very humbling and we are very happy to be part of this,” Mr Fontani said.

The UAE renewed its partnership with Unesco, taking its funding in the project to $50 million (Dh183.6m). It has become the first country to restore Christian churches in Iraq that were destroyed by ISIS.

“The visit is reviving the spirit of life together," Mr Fontani said.

"As for us the message of hope and human fraternity goes perfectly and it was launched in Abu Dhabi in 2019, where at that time the UAE added the two churches to the project,” he said.

The Pope's visit to  Al Tahera Church sends a clear message to the world that harmony and cohesion is the way forward for humanity, UAE Minister of Culture and Youth, Noura Al Kaabi and the Unesco director general, Audrey Azoulay, said on Sunday.

They said the Pope’s visit to the Unesco project – and the site office nearby – was a “source of inspiration” to those working on the rebuilding effort.

Several Iraqi sites have been listed under the UN’s cultural agency, Unesco, as World Heritage Sites. They include the ancient city of Babylon, southern marshlands, Hatra, Samarra, Ashur and the citadel in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region.