Pope Francis visits war-ravaged northern Iraq on the last day of his tour | Middle East News
The Pope arrives in Erbil and is expected to visit Mosul, visit the small Christian community of Qaraqosh.
Pope Francis has arrived in northern Iraq, where he plans to pray in the ruins of churches damaged or destroyed by fighters from the armed group ISIL (ISIS) and to celebrate an outdoor mass on the last day of his visit to the country.
The 84-year-old pontiff is currently making the very first papal visit to Iraq, where the Christian community has shrunk after years of war and persecution.
François arrived Sunday morning at Erbil airport where he will meet the leaders of the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq.
He then traveled to the northern city of Mosul, which was heavily damaged in the war against ISIS, to pray for the victims of the Iraq war.
The setting will be a town square surrounded by the remains of four damaged churches belonging to some of Iraq’s myriad Christian denominations.
He is then expected to travel by helicopter across the plains of Nineveh to the small Christian community of Qaraqosh, where only a fraction of the families returned after fleeing the ISIL assault in 2014.
The Pope will then return to a stadium in Erbil where he will hold a mass which is expected to attract up to 10,000 people.
He landed in Baghdad on Friday for the four-day trip, defying the global pandemic and security concerns after a series of recent attacks in Iraq.
During his trip, the Pope has already visited churches in Baghdad, met senior Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani and held an interfaith meeting in the ancient city of Ur, in what is now southern Iraq.
The Vatican hopes this historic visit will bring together the country’s Christian communities and encourage them to stay despite decades of war and instability.
Iraq declared victory over ISIS in 2017 and, although the armed group no longer controls any territory, it continues to carry out sporadic attacks, especially in the north.
The group’s brutal three-year rule over much of northern and western Iraq, and the grueling campaign against it, has left a vast area of destruction.
Many Iraqis have had to rebuild their homes at their own expense. The Iraqi Christian minority has been particularly affected. Armed fighters forced them to choose between conversion, death, or paying a special tax for non-Muslims.
There were once more than a million Christians in Iraq, but today their population is estimated at between 250,000 and 400,000 after years of war, religious persecution and brutal economic decline.