"You are not alone!" Pope Francis said Sunday in Qaraqosh, a Christian town in Iraq's northern Nineveh plains. "The entire church is close to you, with prayers and concrete charity. And in this region, so many people opened their doors to you in time of need." Before ISIS ravaged the Nineveh plains in 2014, Iraq had about 1.4 million Christians; now, there are about 300,000, Religion News Service reports.
The pope urged those Christians to remain, rebuild their lives, and use their influence to help create a country and region where people of different faiths can coexist peacefully. He also listened to the stories of ISIS survivors and ended the day with a mass in Erbil attended by 10,000 people in Iraq's Kurdish enclave.
Earlier in his papal visit, Francis convened an unprecedented interfaith meeting with Iraqi Muslim, Christian, Yazidi, and Mandaean leaders in the Plains of Ur, believed to be the birthplace of the biblical patriarch Abraham. He and influential, revered Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani later jointly promoted the rights of Iraq's Christian minority and peaceful coexistence. Peter Weber
Pope Francis on Sunday was greeted by thousands of Iraqi Christians as he toured parts of the country's northern region that were once held by the Islamic State, including Mosul, a major city The Associated Press notes was once considered the heart of the so-called caliphate.
"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," Francis said in Mosul while surrounded by four hollowed-out churches nearly destroyed in the war to oust ISIS. "Today, however, we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war."
Francis urged Iraq's Christians, a dwindling minority population, to both "forgive" and not "give up" along the way to a "full recovery." He also emphasized the assistance Mosul's Muslims provided to returning Christians, and prayed for the Yazidis, an ethnic minority that was brutally targeted by ISIS.
In our photo of the week, Pope Francis attends a prayer vigil for the victims of war in Mosul, Iraq, a city once claimed by ISIS as its capital. pic.twitter.com/hjRIRsBppJ
In Qaraqosh, a formerly ISIS-occupied Christian-majority town, journalists captured the "jubilant" atmosphere ahead of Francis' arrival. He then led a prayer service in a newly-refurbished church that had been gutted by ISIS. Tim O'Donnell