Pope Francis visited the ruins of Mosul and a Christian community damaged by the Islamic State during the third day of his historic visit to Iraq Sunday. The day earlier, the pontiff visited the birthplace of Abraham, met with a prominent Shia cleric and gave a sermon in Baghdad.
“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,” the 84-year-old pope said Sunday, according to Reuters, as he met with Muslim and Christian residents in a destroyed portion of Mosul Sunday.
Pope Francis flew into Mosul by helicopter and saw the ruins of homes and churches in a part of a town that used to thrive before the Islamic State’s takeover in 2014. Thousands were killed and millions were displaced by the brutal terror group. The Islamic State was accused of genocide against religious minorities and occupied Mosul from 2014 to 2017.
In addition to visiting Mosul, Pope Francis also met with Christians in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in the predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh, which was destroyed by the Islamic State but efforts have been made to help restore the town. The church itself was also damaged by the extremist group.
“How much has been torn down! How much needs to be rebuilt! Our gathering here today shows that terrorism and death never have the last word,” Pope Francis said. “The last word belongs to God and to his Son, the conqueror of sin and death. Even amid the ravages of terrorism and war, we can see, with the eyes of faith, the triumph of life over death.”
The night before, Francis spoke on the Beatitudes, part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, in a packed Chaldean cathedral in Baghdad. He said the blessed are not the wealthy, powerful or famous, but “the poor, those who mourn, the persecuted.”
“Love is our strength, the source of strength for those of our brothers and sisters who here too have suffered prejudice, indignities, mistreatment and persecutions for the name of Jesus,”the pope said, according to a transcript posted by the Vatican.
“Such inequality, which has increased in our time, is unacceptable,” he said, adding that “the lowliest may be pardoned in mercy, but the mighty will be mightily tested.”
The more powerful are “subjected to rigorous scrutiny, while “the least are God’s privileged ones.”
He also explained that adversity confronts us with two temptations: “to run away” or “to fight.”
He then referred to Jesus’ disciples in Gethsemane, who fled while Peter drew his sword.
“Yet neither flight nor the sword achieved anything,” the pope contended.
On Saturday afternoon, Pope Francis met with a prominent Iraqi Shia leader on the second day of his historic trip, the first by a Pope to Iraq. He also visited the ancient city of Ur, where Abraham was believed to have been born.
The leader of the Catholic Church met with Iraq’s top Shiite cleric in the holy city of Najaf, after which the Shia-majority country declared March 6 as National Day of Tolerance and Coexistence.
The pontiff met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a spiritual authority for Shiite Muslims in Iraq and other countries who is renowned for his promotion of peace.
Vatican News reports that the pontiff and the grand ayatollah “were able to share perspectives and draw attention to the importance of friendship, mutual respect and dialogue, so that all people, no matter their ethnic, cultural or religious tradition, may live together in brotherhood and peace.”
Earlier during the day, Francis attended an interfaith meeting in the ancient city of Ur, urging Iraq’s Muslims, Christians and people from other faith communities to end their historic animosities and work together for peace and unity.
According to the Bible, Abraham, to whom Jews, Christians and Muslims trace their origin, was born in Ur.
“This blessed place brings us back to our origins, to the sources of God’s work, to the birth of our religions,” he said, according to the text of his remarks obtained by the Catholic News Agency.
“Here, where Abraham our father lived, we seem to have returned home. It was here that Abraham heard God’s call; it was from here that he set out on a journey that would change history. We are the fruits of that call and that journey.”
He added that “the greatest blasphemy” was “hating our brothers and sisters.”
“Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion,” he stressed. “We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion; indeed, we are called unambiguously to dispel all misunderstandings.”
While Pope Francis has described his first travel to Iraq as a “pilgrimage of peace,” some radical militant groups have reportedly opposed his visit, which they say amounts to Western interference, according to BBC.
On the first day of his visit on Friday, the pope brought focus on the country’s dwindling Christian population that suffered mass killings by the Islamic State terror group and a mass exodus.
“The age-old presence of Christians in this land, and their contributions to the life of the nation, constitute a rich heritage that they wish to continue to place at the service of all,” said Francis after arriving in Baghdad, addressing Iraqi President Barham Salih and other officials and diplomats at the Presidential Palace on Friday.
“May there be an end to acts of violence and extremism, factions and intolerance! May room be made for all those citizens who seek to cooperate in building up this country through dialogue and through frank, sincere and constructive discussion.”
Pope Francis declared that it is “essential” to “ensure the participation of all political, social and religious groups and to guarantee the fundamental rights of all citizens.”
“May no one be considered a second-class citizen,” he told the authorities.
There were about 1.5 million Christians in Iraq in 2003, and the number has reduced to roughly 250,000, according to estimates.
Even after the defeat of the Islamic State in December 2017, many of Iraq’s Christians haven’t found their homeland livable. They have either not returned home or continued to leave the country.