Pope Francis on his third day in Iraq, visited a city reduced to rubble in the fight with the Islamic State, which had tortured followers of other faiths while it held control. Joyous crowds later welcomed him to Iraq’s Christian heartland.
The Pope who appeared on a brilliant red carpet against a backdrop of rubble and ruin, visited what was once a vibrant Iraqi city of Mosul on Sunday to illustrate the terrible cost of religious fanaticism, showing how, in that ravaged place, the price had been blood.
“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,” he said. Thousands of Muslims, Christians and Yazidis, he said, “were cruelly annihilated by terrorism, and others forcibly displaced or killed.”
On the last day of a visit which is aimed at promoting harmony among people of different faiths, as well as offering support to a Christian community often persecuted since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the pope’s visit to Mosul seemed to dispel any notion that his words had been mere abstractions.
All around the 84-year-old pontiff were physical reminders of the worst that people can do to one another.
As the pope on Sunday was again on the move before dawn, boarding a helicopter to fly to Mosul. From the air, he could survey the ravages of what was once Iraq’s third-largest city.
After landing, his convoy moved down streets lined with soldiers, some holding Iraqi flags but most carrying heavy weapons. In the city, he faced a disaster site: buildings turned to rubble, though balconies and twisted wrought-iron railings remained. It was a sight that showed where sectarian divides can lead.
Many civilians died in their thousands in Mosul between the city’s fall to the Islamic State in 2014 and its retaking by American-backed Iraqi forces in 2017. The nine-month campaign to wrest the city back, featuring sustained airstrikes aimed at rooting out fighters who had woven themselves deeply into Mosul’s fabric, left little but ashes.
Like Dresden after the Allied firebombing, Warsaw after its uprising was crushed by the Nazis, or Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped, Mosul was left flattened, a symbol of humanity’s awful power to destroy.
It did not have to be that way, Pope Francis said. “The real identity of this city is that of harmonious coexistence between people of different backgrounds and cultures,” he said.
The square where the pontiff stood was once surrounded by four churches, used by the faithful of four religions. They were no more — just piles of stone and twisted metal.
But the pope called for reaffirming “our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war.
“This conviction speaks with greater eloquence than the passing voices of hatred and violence,” he continued, “and it can never be silenced by the blood spilled by those who pervert the name of God to pursue paths of destruction.”
Recall that Iraq’s top Shiite cleric met Pope Francis who delivered a powerful message of peaceful coexistence on Saturday, urging Muslims in the war-weary Arab nation to embrace Iraq’s long-beleaguered Christian minority during an historic meeting in the holy city of Najaf.