Pope Francis in Mosul on Sunday

Amid Mosul’s Ruins, Pope Denounces Religious Fanaticism


MOSUL (New York Times) — On his third day in Iraq, Pope Francis visited a city reduced to rubble in the fight with the Islamic State, which had tortured followers of other faiths while it held control. Joyous crowds later welcomed him to Iraq’s Christian heartland.

Appearing on a brilliant red carpet against a backdrop of rubble and ruin, Pope Francis visited the once-vibrant Iraqi city of Mosul on Sunday, March 7, to illustrate the terrible cost of religious fanaticism, showing how, in that ravaged place, the price had been blood.

“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,” he said. Thousands of Muslims, Christians and Yazidis, he said, “were cruelly annihilated by terrorism, and others forcibly displaced or killed.”

On his last full day of a visit aimed at promoting harmony among people of different faiths, as well as offering support to a Christian community often persecuted since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the pope’s visit to Mosul seemed to dispel any notion that his words had been mere abstractions.

All around the 84-year-old pontiff were physical reminders of the worst that people can do to one another.

It stood in contrast to the highlight of his travels on Saturday, when he met with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the revered Shiite cleric. Sitting on wooden chairs in an unadorned room in the southern city of Najaf, the two men had a quiet conversation described by aides as focused on what religious leaders can do to stop violence done in the name of religion.

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From there, the pope traveled to the ancient city of Ur, traditionally held to be the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, venerated by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. It was a day meant to convey images of religious unity and tolerance.

On Sunday, the pope was again on the move before dawn, boarding a helicopter to fly to Mosul. From the air, he could survey the ravages of what was once Iraq’s third-largest city.

After landing, his convoy moved down streets lined with soldiers, some holding Iraqi flags but most carrying heavy weapons. In the city, he faced a disaster site: buildings turned to rubble, though balconies and twisted wrought-iron railings remained. It was a sight that showed where sectarian divides can lead.

Thousands of civilians died in Mosul between the city’s fall to the Islamic State in 2014 and its retaking by American-backed Iraqi forces in 2017. The nine-month campaign to wrest the city back, featuring sustained airstrikes aimed at rooting out fighters who had woven themselves deeply into Mosul’s fabric, left little but ashes.

Like Dresden after the Allied firebombing, Warsaw after its uprising was crushed by the Nazis, or Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped, Mosul was left flattened, a symbol of humanity’s awful power to destroy.

It did not have to be that way, Pope Francis said. “The real identity of this city is that of harmonious coexistence between people of different backgrounds and cultures,” he said.

The square where the pontiff stood was once surrounded by four churches, used by the faithful of four religions. They were no more — just piles of stone and twisted metal.

But the pope called for reaffirming “our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than death, that peace more powerful than war.”

“This conviction speaks with greater eloquence than the passing voices of hatred and violence,” he continued, “and it can never be silenced by the blood spilled by those who pervert the name of God to pursue paths of destruction.”

In the culmination of the first trip by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church to Iraq, Pope Francis said Mass on Sunday before thousands of people in a stadium in the northern city of Erbil.

It was a remarkable coda to a visit punctuated by events and celebrations rich in symbolism and powerful calls for religious tolerance.

While there were concerns before the trip that it might be unwise to hold events that invariably drew crowds even as the spread of the coronavirus remained largely unchecked in Iraq, many of the gatherings were held indoors.

The pope, 84, who has been vaccinated, appeared unmasked at some meetings and events, including during talks with the 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has not been inoculated.

At a Mass in the town of Qaraqosh earlier in the day, about half the congregation were unmasked. Coronavirus rates have been rising in Iraq, where the government has imposed a curfew and other measures, but few Iraqis take precautions.

The Mass on Sunday was offered in the Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil, the Iraqi Kurdistan regional capital. While Kurdish television said that about 10,000 people attended, church officials had earlier said that about 5,000 tickets would be distributed.

The pope drove through the stadium in an open vehicle — the only time he has used it in the high-security visit — waving to the faithful as he passed by.

In the streets of Ankawa, the Christian enclave of Erbil, thousands of people holding flowers and olive branches stood behind plastic tape strung between barriers, hoping to catch a glimpse of Francis as he drove to the stadium.

Musicians played drums and flutes as children danced on the sidewalk.

The streets of upscale shops and beauty salons were a far cry from the Ankawa of 2014, when tens of thousands of Christians fled the Islamic State takeover of towns in the Nineveh Plains and took refuge in an unfinished shopping mall, construction sites and tents erected in church gardens.

“The pope’s visit is a gift for all of us,” said Omar Polis, who had been waiting for three hours with his three children. “The only thing we are looking for is the hope of living peacefully like brothers in this country.”

Less than four years ago, just a short distance from where Pope Francis spoke on Sunday, al-Tahera Syriac Catholic Church in Mosul was turned into something dark and sinister.

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, converted it into a courthouse where it dispensed its vision of justice — which made no room for any religious vision but its own barbaric code.

From the church, the group’s leaders would hand down sentences of whippings, imprisonment and beheadings, to people tried for offenses ranging from smoking cigarettes or playing music to blasphemy.

Another church, visited by Francis on Sunday, was used as a jail.

The old section of the city is only now being reconstructed. Four years after the fighting ended, workers are finding explosives and bodies in the ruins of buildings.

Christians, who were forced to either convert or pay a special tax to the Islamic State before being expelled from the city altogether, have largely stayed away. Of the several thousand Christians living in Mosul before 2014, only about 350 have returned, almost all of them to the more prosperous side east of the river, which suffered far less damage.

On Sunday, posters covered walls so pockmarked with bullet holes that it looked as though a rash had broken out, covering all the buildings of the square.

The surrounding churches — Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian — might as well have been ruined by an earthquake. On one wall, behind an altar with a salvaged wooden cross, a mural of three girls at play had the faces blackened out.

Security was ironclad. Soldiers with long guns mixed with armed guards in suits. One leaned against a large poster of the pope, right next to the pontiff’s cross, holding a backpack and an automatic machine gun.

Children dressed in white and teenagers waving olive branches formed a corridor for the pope’s entrance, and a chorus in traditional dress sang and shouted “Long live the pope!” as Francis took a seat on a white throne at the center of the small stage.

“I especially welcome, then, your invitation to the Christian community to return to Mosul and to take up their vital role in the process of healing and renewal,” the pope said.

Francis praised the young volunteers in Mosul — Christian and Muslim alike — who have been working to rebuild churches and mosques.

The majority of the work is being done as part of a $50 million project funded by the United Arab Emirates and overseen by UNESCO.

In Mosul, the assistant site coordinator Anas Zeyad, 29, said he hoped the restored churches would encourage Christians to return to Mosul.

“I am sure it will be a first step for them to come back,” said Mr. Zeyad, an engineer who is Muslim. “They have memories, they have Muslim friends, they have homes here.”

Ghazwan Yousif Baho, a local priest, invited Francis to Mosul in 2014 and acted as master of ceremonies on Sunday. “He said he would come,” the priest said. “He keeps his promises.”

Rana Bazzoiee, a pediatric surgeon, 37, fled to the nearby city of Erbil in 2013 when ISIS arrived. “I don’t like to remember that moment,” she said.

Before that, “We were living here in Mosul, all together, Christians, Muslims,” she said. “We couldn’t believe something like that would happen. I think nobody stayed here. All the Christians left.”

She said she harbored no anger — that her Muslim and Yazidi friends had helped her in those dark days and that, while a semblance of normalcy had returned, the pope’s visit could improve things further. “Why not?” she said. “We lived together for a long time in Mosul.”

Francis sought to encourage that flicker of hope, saying: “It is possible to hope in reconciliation and new life.”

He then delivered a haunting — and radical — prayer, calling not only for the eternal peace of those who were killed, but for the repentance of their killers.

“To you we entrust all those whose span of earthly life was cut short by the violent hand of their brothers and sisters,” Francis said. “We also pray to you for those who caused such harm to their brothers and sisters. May they repent, touched by the power of your mercy.”

Lining the streets outside the al-Tahira Syriac Catholic Church, they let out cheers of unbridled joy when he made it to Qaraqosh, the largest town in Iraq’s Christian heartland.

It was the embrace of a community that recently faced annihilation — celebrating survival after suffering persecution under the rule of the Islamic State.

A group of white-robed nuns on a rooftop held brightly colored balloons. Women wearing traditional Christian dress with brightly colored shawls embroidered with scenes of church and home life waved olive branches.

Qaraqosh, just 20 miles from Mosul, was overtaken by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in 2014 and held for three years before being liberated by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces. Its 50,000 residents fled when ISIS arrived, and those who returned found burned and looted houses and badly damaged churches. About half the pre-2014 population never came back.

ISIS had turned many of the homes into car bomb factories — including the home of Edison Stefo, a school principal who was among the parishioners waiting in the church.

He said he hoped the pope’s visit would encourage Christians to return.

“This is like a dream,” Mr. Stefo said. “We feel like he is one of us — that he is from our area and knows what we went through.”

Since Peter’s journey to Rome, traditionally dated to 44 A.D., trips taken by popes — known as the Vicars of Christ — have played an integral role in shaping how the world sees the Roman Catholic Church.

They also reflect the way popes see their role in the world.

The modern era of the papal trip began in October 1962, when John XXIII boarded a train at the tiny Vatican rail station to visit the Holy House of Loreto and the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. It was the first time a pope had left Rome since 1857, according to historians, after Pius IX famously declared himself a “prisoner of the Vatican” in 1870 to protest the loss of the Papal States.

Of all of Pope Francis’s journeys, none have taken him as close to the site of the roots of monotheistic religions as the windswept plain in southern Iraq with the remains of a 4,000-year-old temple dedicated to a moon god.

It was in Ur that the faithful believe God revealed himself to the Prophet Abraham, known since as the father of monotheistic religions.

On Saturday, Francis spoke within sight of the ziggurat there, a stepped pyramid topped by a temple — the remains of the neo-Sumerian capital where tradition has it that Abraham was born.

“Here where Abraham our father lived, we seem to have returned home,” the pope said.

Francis said that God, who had promised a 100-year-old Abraham that he would have children, told the prophet to look up to the sky and count the stars.

“In those stars he saw the promise of his descendants — he saw us,” said Francis, surrounded by Muslim and Christian leaders and representatives of ancient religious minorities.

Francis also spoke of injustice and the dispossessed.

“All too many people lack food, medicine, education, rights and dignity,” he said.

Ur is 10 miles from the provincial capital, Nasiriya, a center of antigovernment protests that in 2019 brought down a prime minister. While the protest movement has been crushed in Baghdad, in Nasiriya it continues as young people demand jobs, clean water and electricity.

Despite its religious and archaeological importance, few visitors come to Ur.

In 1999, the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ordered the remains of a home reputed as Abraham’s birthplace to be reconstructed with modern bricks and arches. The original mud bricks of the ziggurat — sealed with bitumen — remain, and some have traces of cuneiform writing.

Still, archaeologists point to a significant inconsistency in the belief that Abraham was from Ur in Iraq. He is said to have been born about 4,000 years ago, and the Bible refers to him as being from “Ur of the Chaldees” — a reference to a people who lived in Iraq 1,000 years later.

There was no video of the meeting, and no cheering, singing crowds. But in many ways the meeting between Pope Francis and Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric in the holy city of Najaf on Saturday morning was one of the most moving of the pontiff’s whirlwind tour of Iraq.

The two elders — Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, 90, and Pope Francis, 84, each the highest religious authority among their followers — sat across from each other on simple wooden seats in the ayatollah’s modest home.

The pope is a Jesuit who eschews luxury and advocates for the poor, and Ayatollah al-Sistani a reclusive religious scholar who champions the downtrodden.

A photo released by the Vatican press office showed the pope walking down an alleyway near the ayatollah’s home, the alley barely wide enough for members of the pope’s entourage walking four abreast. Makeshift electricity lines dangled from the houses, some with windows covered with bent metal bars.

Najaf is the site of the tomb of Imam Ali, considered by Shiite Muslims the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad. For the first time in years, the shrine was closed to pilgrims because of the pope’s visit.

Ayatollah al-Sistani rarely leaves his house, and communicates to the outside world through a spokesman. Although he is Iranian, his pronouncements on Iraq carry great weight. He has been able to set elections in motion, and his withdrawal of support for Iraq’s previous prime minister, whom he felt was failing the people, left the prime minister little choice but to resign.

The meeting between the two religious leaders ran longer than expected. A statement released by Ayatollah al-Sistani’s office said the cleric had stressed that Christian citizens deserve to “live like all Iraqis in security and peace and with full constitutional rights.”

He also talked about “injustice, oppression, poverty, religious and intellectual persecution” and raised concern about the plight of displaced people in the region, “particularly the Palestinian people in the occupied territories.”

The Vatican, in its statement about the meeting, said the pope had thanked the cleric “for speaking up — together with the Shiite community — in defense of those most vulnerable and persecuted amid the violence and great hardships.”

While the visit was highly symbolic, it also aimed to signal to Shiite Muslim leaders that Christians are to be respected.

Neither cleric was pictured wearing a mask. While Francis and those traveling with him have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, Ayatollah al-Sistani has not. The ayatollah, according to a member of his office, does not want to deprive someone else of a vaccine dose and is waiting for others to be vaccinated first. His office has made it clear, however, that Ayatollah al-Sistani believes vaccination is religiously permitted.

The scars were still there for Pope Francis to see: bullet holes on the walls of Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, tangible reminders of a 2010 attack that accelerated an exodus of Christians from Iraq and tore at the heart of the community.

On Friday, light streamed in through the colored stained glass, illuminating the Arab script on the wood-paneled walls and falling on the masked clergy, nuns and seminarians who were distanced three to a pew.

A roar of joy could be heard outside when the pope — surrounded by guards and watched over by rooftop soldiers with heavy weaponry — arrived to greet the faithful outside the church.

As the pope walked into the church, making the sign of the cross, the church erupted in ululations and traditional music.

He shuffled down the red-carpeted central nave, followed by local priests, and took a seat on a wooden throne before the altar. There, Francis heard local bishops speak of the massacre of dozens of people and the general persecution of Christians in Iraq.

But Francis needed no reminding.

“We are gathered in this Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, hallowed by the blood of our brothers and sisters who here paid the ultimate price of their fidelity to the Lord and his church,” Francis said.

At least 56 people were killed in that 2010 attack, including worshipers, two priests, members of the security forces and bystanders.

Christians had been leaving Iraq since 2003, when the United States’ toppling of Saddam Hussein created a security vacuum. The rise of armed groups then led to a civil war. And the church attack was a stark reminder of the security forces’ limited ability to protect Christians and other Iraqis.

Francis on Friday acknowledged that the “daunting pastoral challenges that you daily face have been aggravated in this time of pandemic.” But, he said, despite the limitations of the pandemic, the faith of Christians should not be contained.

“We know how easy it is to be infected by the virus of discouragement that at times seems to spread all around us,” he said, adding that God had provided them with a faith that is “an effective vaccine” against that proverbial virus.

The trip, the first papal visit to the country, came at a vulnerable time. Iraq reported record daily highs of more than 5,000 infections this week, and its leaders have implemented curfews. The country’s vaccination campaign began only last week, and many Iraqis are wary of government health programs, so few in the population of nearly 40 million have received even a single shot.

The pope and his entourage were vaccinated, and the Vatican had dismissed fears that large events during the trip might spread the virus, saying that precautions would be taken to minimize risk.

But Iraqis are generally unaccustomed to wearing masks and many live and work in crowded conditions, so they are also unused to social distancing. When they gathered in large numbers to see the pope, mask-wearing was far from universal.

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