Baghdad: Pope Francis visited the cities of Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh in northern Iraq that were once hostage of the Islamic State (ISIS, a terrorist organization, banned in Russia) on Sunday.
The 84-year-old pontiff first arrived in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, around 9 a.m. local time (06:00 GMT). He was greeted at Erbil International Airport by Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani and President Nechirvan Barzani, as well as former President Masoud Barzani, as reported by the Kurdistan 24 broadcaster.
“You have protected the Christians when ISIS attacked,” the pope said during the private meeting at the airport’s presidential lounge, as quoted in the report, describing the Kurdistan Region as a “home for displaced Christians.”
The pontiff then headed to Mosul on a helicopter to deliver a prayer in Suffrage of the Victims of the War. Mosul, adjacent to the Biblical city of Nineveh, was liberated from the three-year IS occupation by the Iraqi and international forces in 2017.
As Pope Francis spoke from the scene installed in Hosh al-Bieaa, or the Square of the Four Churches — Armenian Orthodox, Chaldean, Syriac Catholic and Syriac Orthodox — representing the pluralistic identity of Iraq, ruins of the churches destroyed by the terrorists from 2014-2017 were behind him.
In his address before the prayer for all the victims of war in the country and throughout the Middle East, the head of the Catholic Church called on the Iraqi Christians to return to Mosul.
“The decrease in the number of Christians in the Middle East is a serious harm,” Pope Francis said, as quoted by the Iraqi News Agency.
The pontiff then called on to raise prayers for the victims of terrorism, noting that “Mosul has two symbols of approaching God, the Mosque of al-Nuri and the Minaret of al-Hadbaa, and that moving away from divine values has led to the spread of evil.”
The pope then headed to visit Iraq’s largest church, the Church of the Immaculate Conception, located in nearby Qaraqosh (Bakhdida), which was also partially destroyed by terrorists.
Pope Francis was expected to return to Erbil for a final mass in the afternoon for some 10,000 attendees.
The historic papal visit to Iraq began on Friday with the focus on rallying the country’s Christian community and preaching religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence.