Highlights of Pope Francis final programs in Iraq

Pope Francis in the culmination of the first trip by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church to Iraq 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 calls for religious tolerance.

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 Roman Catholic Pontiff 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.”

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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.

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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.

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