On a historic trip, the pontiff urged Christians to stay in Iraq and prayed for "victims of war." Both Muslims and Christians told the pope of their lives under a violent "Islamic State" rule.
Pope Francis prayed on Sunday for "victims of war" in Iraq's Mosul on a historic trip to the city, where the "Islamic State" (IS) armed group terrorized one of the world's oldest Christian communities until the jihadis' defeat three years ago.
Both Muslim and Christian residents of the city told the pope of their lives under IS rule, as he told them that "fraternity is more durable than fratricide."
"The road to a full recovery may still be long, but I ask you, please, not to grow discouraged. What is needed is the ability to forgive, but also the courage not to give up," he said.
On the third day of his trip to Iraq, the pope walked past ruins of houses and churches to a square that was once the center of the Old City,and sat on a white chair surrounded by empty buildings.
Mosul was occupied by IS from 2014 to 2017 — a time in which the city saw many of its ancient churches and mosques destroyed during a bloody battle by Iraqi forces and an international military coalition to drive out IS.
"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 and others — forcibly displaced or killed," said Pope Francis.
"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."
"Together we say no to fundamentalism. No to sectarianism and no to corruption," the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, Najeeb Michaeel, told the pope.
In an apparent direct reference to IS, the pope said hope could never be "silenced by the blood spilled by those who pervert the name of God to pursue paths of destruction."
He then read a prayer repeating one of the main themes of his trip, that it is always wrong to hate, kill or wage war in God's name.
Clemens Graf von Mirbach-Harff, secretary general of the Malteser International charity, who accompanied the pope to Iraq, told DW that "every gesture of peace is welcome" in a region where Christians have been persecuted in recent years. "Just his visit to this region is an improbably strong signal," von Mirbach-Harff said.
The secretary general also called the meeting with Shiite leader Ali al-Sistani "a great act of love and peace." "If a great religious leader like the pope can take this step, walking humbly through the streets to meet the Shiite leader, then that's a strong symbol of the fact that he lives what he preaches," he said.
In front of the walls of the centuries-old Al-Tahera (Immaculate Conception) Church, the pope also called on Christians in Iraq and the Middle East to stay in their homelands.
"The message that he's bringing, particularly coming to this area of northern Iraq, is solidarity with the Christian community who suffered terribly under the Islamic State," said DW correspondent Owen Holdaway.
The pope said the "tragic" exodus of Christians from war-scarred Iraq and the wider region "does incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned, but also to the society they leave behind."
IS attacks forced hundreds of thousands of Christians in northern Iraq's Nineveh province to flee. The country's Christian population has shrunk to fewer than 400,000, from around 1.5 million before the US-led invasion in 2003.
Raid Adel Kallo, pastor of the destroyed Church of the Annunciation, told the pope how in 2014 he left with 500 Christian families, and how fewer than 70 families are present now.
"The majority have emigrated and are afraid to return," said Kallo. "But I live here, with 2 million Muslims who call me father and I am living my mission with them."
The heaviest deployment of security forces yet was also mobilized on Sunday to protect Francis on the riskiest day of his trip to Iraq, where state forces are still battling IS cells.
On Saturday, he held a meeting with Iraq's top Shiite cleric and visited the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, a central figure in Christian, Muslim and Jewish beliefs.
Francis later traveled to hold Mass in the stadium in Irbil, a city in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region. The AFP news agency reported that "several thousand" took part, despite concerns about coronavirus.
He arrived in Irbil early on Sunday, where he was greeted by children in traditional dress and one outfitted as a pope. Public health experts had expressed concerns ahead of the trip that large gatherings could serve as superspreader events for the virus, in a country suffering from a new surge in cases.
The Vatican said it was taking precautions, including holding the Mass outdoors in a stadium that will only be partially filled. However, much of the pope's visit to the country has drawn large crowds who gather closely, with few people wearing face masks. The pope and members of his delegation have been vaccinated, but most Iraqis have not.
jf, lc/aw (Reuters, AFP, AP)