Gerard O’ConnellMarch 07, 2021
Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to celebrate Mass at Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil, Iraq, on March 7. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to celebrate Mass at Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil, Iraq, on March 7. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Scenes of jubilation marked the final day of Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq, when he visited the northern part of the country. It began with his visit to Mosul, continued in the city of Qaraqosh (the most Christian town in Iraq) and ended with an open-air Mass attended by some 10,000 people at a stadium in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous region of Kurdistan.

In the morning the pope flew from Baghdad to Erbil, then traveled by helicopter to Mosul, once a city of 1.8 million people but now reduced to 750,000 as a result of the destruction and cruelty wrought by the Islamic State. ISIS made its headquarters in Mosul from June 2014 to July 2017, and it conquered some 40 percent of Iraq. (In late 2014, a magazine published by ISIS was bold enough to depict its black flag flying over St. Peter’s Square.)

Francis was driven in a bulletproof car to Hosh-al-Bieaa, a square with four churches in the city center. The churches are now in ruins, as are all the buildings around them, because of ISIS. Francis took part in a prayer service for the victims of ISIS, and the hundreds of people who welcomed him, Christians and Muslims alike, knew he had taken risks to be among them.

After listening to testimonies by some of the victims of ISIS violence, Pope Francis spoke: “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! They were cruelly annihilated by terrorism.”

“We reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war.”

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

Francis then offered some thoughts that could be considered a synthesis of the message he has been communicating during his visit to Iraq: “If God is the God of life—for so he is—then it is wrong for us to kill our brothers and sisters in his name. If God is the God of peace—for so he is—then it is wrong for us to wage war in his name. If God is the God of love—for so he is—then it is wrong for us to hate our brothers and sisters.”

He concluded, “May all of us—whatever our religious tradition—live in harmony and peace, conscious that in the eyes of God, we are all brothers and sisters.”

After reciting the specially written prayers “for all the victims of war,” the pope laid a memorial stone in memory of his presence here today. He then rode in a golf-cart-type vehicle to visit the other destroyed churches in this city.

In Qaraqosh: “How much needs to be rebuilt!”

From Mosul, the pope went by helicopter to Qaraqosh, the Christian village that had 50,000 inhabitants when the Islamic State entered in 2014. Today it has a population of around 35,000. Francis rode from the heliport to the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which had been burnt down and desecrated by ISIS; its cloister had been used as a shooting range, and nearby homes were ransacked and burnt. Thanks to aid from international agencies including Aid to the Church in Need, the restoration of the church was almost completed in time for the papal visit.

As he entered the city, it seemed as if the whole town had turned out to greet him. They had waited from early morning; in jubilation, a priest and a nun danced on the street, as did many people.

For them, Francis was a hero. He was even more than that for Fatin, a 24-year-old engineer waiting for him at the church. “He is a blessing,” she told America. “His visit is a message from God to us that ‘I am always with you.’” She recalled how she and her entire family—mother, father, two brothers and a sister—abandoned their home and fled to Erbil when they heard ISIS was coming. They returned when the city was liberated in 2016, only to find their house, the church and the houses of their friends all burned down by ISIS. But her friend, Rami, a computer engineer, and several others I spoke to said they believed Francis’ visit can help bring a lasting peace to their land.


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Pope Francis was affected by the joyous mood of the thousands lining the streets, so much so that he insisted on lowering the window of his bulletproof car so people could see him and receive his blessing. He even stopped once to bless a child, to the consternation of his security detail.

The bells of the restored Church of the Immaculate Conception pealed with joy as he arrived, and women ululated their joy. In Iraq, this sound is called zalghouta. We heard it when Francis visited a Syrian-Catholic church on his first evening in Iraq, when he visited a Chaldean church yesterday and again today at Mosul.

In Qaraqosh, Francis spoke of the suffering caused by ISIS and said: “How much has been torn down! How much needs to be rebuilt!” But, he added: “Our gathering here today shows that terrorism and death never have the last word. The last word belongs to God and to his Son, the conqueror of sin and death.”

He encouraged his audience to follow “the example of your fathers and mothers in faith, who worshipped and praised God in this place. They persevered with unwavering hope along their earthly journey, trusting in God who never disappoints and who constantly sustains us by his grace. The great spiritual legacy they left behind continues to live in you. Embrace this legacy! It is your strength!”

“Our gathering here today shows that terrorism and death never have the last word.”

Francis knows this is an uphill struggle in a country with so much insecurity: It took 10,000 soldiers and police to protect the pope and those traveling with him, and there is still distrust among people because of the division sown by ISIS. But looking to the future, he said, “Now is the time to rebuild and to start afresh, relying on the grace of God, who guides the destinies of all individuals and peoples.” And he assured them: “You are not alone! 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. Dear friends, this is the time to restore not just buildings but also the bonds of community that unite communities and families, the young and the old together.”

He reminded them of the “saints next door,” “who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence.” He added: “This land has many of them because it is a land of many holy men and women. Let them accompany you to a better future, a future of hope.” He noted how young Muslims and Christians were working together to rebuild churches and mosques.

Continuing the theme of reconciliation, Francis encouraged his listeners to forgive their oppressors, saying: “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.... We believe that God can bring peace to this land. We trust in him and, together with all people of good will, we say ‘no’ to terrorism and the manipulation of religion.”

When he finished celebrating Mass, the 300 or so people in the church cheered, and many shouted, “Viva il Papa!”

In Erbil: “I can see at first hand that the church in Iraq is alive”

From Qaraqosh, Francis went by helicopter to Erbil, where 10,000 believers had waited hours to greet him at Franso Hariri Stadium. Many were dressed in traditional costumes, and they welcomed him with joy when, for the first time since Feb. 26, 2020, he rode in the popemobile, traveling around the stadium.

In his homily at Mass, he reminded them that Jesus showed mercy and forgiveness, and as his followers we are called to do likewise. He told them, “Jesus liberates us from the narrow and divisive notions of family, faith and community that divide, oppose and exclude, so that we can build a church and a society open to everyone and concerned for our brothers and sisters in greatest need.”

He continued, “Jesus strengthens us to resist the temptation to seek revenge, which only plunges us into a spiral of endless retaliation.”

The pope then offered words of encouragement: “Even amid great poverty and difficulty, many of you have generously offered concrete help and solidarity to the poor and suffering. That is one of the reasons that led me to come as a pilgrim in your midst, to thank you and to confirm you in your faith and witness. Today, I can see at first hand that the church in Iraq is alive, that Christ is alive and at work in this, his holy and faithful people.”

The Mass in the stadium was Pope Francis’ last public appearance in Iraq, so he took the opportunity to bid the country farewell, saying, “I have heard voices of sorrow and loss but also voices of hope and consolation.”

Pope Francis achieved his main goals. He has given hope and encouragement to the martyred nation.

He told the crowd: “Now the time draws near for my return to Rome. Yet Iraq will always remain with me, in my heart. I ask all of you, dear brothers and sisters, to work together in unity for a future of peace and prosperity that leaves no one behind and discriminates against no one. I assure you of my prayers for this beloved country.” He concluded with: “Sukrán! [“Thank you!”]! May God bless you all! May God bless Iraq! Allah ma’akum! [“God be with you!”]”

Francis returns to Rome tomorrow. His visit has been, without doubt, a major success. On the eve of his visit there were two major concerns: security and the Covid-19 virus. But the Iraqi government ensured his security and that of all those traveling with him, showing that the country is beginning a resurrection from a nightmare period of its history. As for the risk of spreading Covid, only time will tell whether the most dire predictions were accurate. In any case, Francis has recognized the gravity of the problem. He advocated during his visit for the equitable distribution of the Covid-19 vaccines. But he has also made clear that it is not the only major problem in the world, and we must not allow ourselves to be paralyzed by it.

Pope Francis achieved his main goals. He has given hope and encouragement to the martyred nation. He has taken a major step to fostering peace and reconciliation, by strengthening Christian-Muslim relations in this land through his meeting with Ayatollah al-Sistani. Finally, he has consoled and encouraged Christians in Iraq, advocated for their full rights as citizens and assured them that the whole Catholic Church stands with them.

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