Pope Francis prays for victims of war in ruins of Mosul

MAIN2_DSC04472616.jpg Pope Francis releases a dove after praying for the victims of war in Mosul, Iraq, March 7, 2021. Photo credits: Vatican Media.

Pope Francis prayed on Sunday for the victims of war in the rubble-strewn city of Mosul, where the Islamic State declared its caliphate in 2014.

The pope offered a prayer of suffrage March 7 for the thousands killed in Iraq's second-largest city and across the region.

Addressing God, he said: "To you, we entrust all those whose span of earthly life was cut short by the violent hand of their brothers and sisters; we also pray to you for those who caused such harm to their brothers and sisters. May they repent, touched by the power of your mercy." 

The pope recited the prayer in Mosul's Hosh al-Bieaa (Church Square), surrounded by four churches -- Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Chaldean Catholic -- which were either damaged or destroyed after the Islamic State seized the city.

In his prayer, the pope referred to the city's Al-Nouri Mosque, where on June 29, 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a caliphate, known as the Islamic State, spanning Iraq and Syria.

The group ruled Mosul for almost three years before Iraqi and international forces reclaimed the city street by street.

Al-Baghdadi was killed during a U.S. raid in Syria in 2019. The organization he led continues to carry out sporadic attacks.

The pope arrived in the square in a black car, emerging beside a mountain of rubble to cheers and ululations from a crowd waving Iraqi flags.

He was visiting the city on the final day of a three-day trip to Iraq intended to strengthen the hope of the country's persecuted Christian minority and foster fraternity and interreligious dialogue. It is the first papal visit to the country and Francis' first foreign trip since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

The pope stood on a stage in the square as a band played upbeat music. To his left was a golden cross, draped in a white cloth and topped with a dove.

The pope sat on a white chair as he listened to an address by Archbishop Najib Mikhael Moussa, O.P. The Chaldean archbishop of Mosul welcomed him to "the land of the prophets."

The 65-year-old Dominican, who was born in Mosul, said: "Thank you for being here with us. You are a pilgrim of peace and a voice that awakens consciences."

He continued: "We say together no to fundamentalism, no to bigotry, and no to corruption."

The archbishop was nominated by the European Parliament for the 2020 Sakharov Prize. The citation said that when the Islamic State arrived in Mosul, he "ensured the evacuation of Christians, Syriacs and Chaldeans to Iraqi Kurdistan and safeguarded more than 800 historic manuscripts dating from the 13th to the 19th century."

The manuscripts were digitized and exhibited in France and Italy.

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Gutayba Aagha, a Sunni Muslim and leader of the Independent Social and Cultural Council for the Families of Mosul, described how the city was rising from "the ashes like a phoenix."

"On behalf of the Council, I urge our Christian brothers and sisters to return to this city of theirs, to their properties, and resume their businesses," he said.

Fr Emmanuel (Raid) Adel Kallo, pastor of Mosul's Church of the Annunciation, recalled that before the Islamic State invasion he had led a parish of 500 Christian families. Today there are fewer than 70 Christian families in Mosul, with many afraid to return.

"I returned to Mosul three years ago, after the liberation of the city," he said.  

"My Muslim brothers welcomed me with great respect and love. The visits of the imams of the mosques of Mosul to bring good wishes to the Church have left a deep mark in my heart."  

"I was also visited by all the Muslims of the city, including writers, heads of tribes, educated people as well as simple workers, who visited me to give their good wishes on the occasion of the restoration of the Church of the Annunciation that ISIS had destroyed."

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He said that the artist who painted icons, carved statues, and made inscriptions with Gospel verses for the restored church is a Muslim.

"Another beautiful example is the invitation for the ceremony of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad in the mosque of Rashan: this is the first time that a priest to participate in such a ceremony in a mosque," he said.

"It should be noted that in the same mosque ISIS read the document of the expulsion of Christians in 2014."

The pope thanked the speakers for their testimonies. He said that the "tragic diminution of Jesus' disciples" across the Middle East had inflicted "incalculable harm," not only on Christian communities but also on the societies they left behind.

"As in one of your intricately designed carpets, one small thread torn away can damage the rest," he said.

The pope welcomed Aagha's invitation to Christians to return to Mosul and take up "their vital role in the process of healing and renewal."

"Here in Mosul, the tragic consequences of war and hostility are all too evident," he said. 

"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." 

"Today, however, we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace is more powerful than war. 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."

Putting on a stole, the pope introduced the prayer of suffrage.

He said: "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 then offered the prayer, which referred to Mosul's Church of Our Lady of the Hour, which has a famous clock tower. The pope said that the clock "for more than a century has reminded passersby that life is short and that time is precious."

"Teach us to realize that you have entrusted to us your plan of love, peace, and reconciliation, and charged us to carry it out in our time, in the brief span of our earthly lives," he prayed.

"Make us recognize that only in this way, by putting it into practice immediately, can this city and this country be rebuilt, and hearts torn by grief be healed." 

He continued: "Help us not to pass our time in promoting our selfish concerns, whether as individuals or as groups, but in serving your loving plan. And whenever we go astray, grant that we may heed the voice of true men and women of God and repent in due time, lest we be once more overwhelmed by destruction and death."

After the prayer, the golden cross was unveiled, revealing a centerpiece depicting historical sites in Mosul. 

The pope then released a dove, which remained standing in his palm, before flying up into the air.

A commemorative plaque was unveiled in honor of Francis' visit. 

It said: "'How beautiful are the feet of messengers of peace' (Romans 10:15). In commemoration of the visit of His Holiness Pope Francis, as a messenger of peace and fraternal love, to the city of Mosul and to the Plain of Nineveh. Here, where Christians endured compulsory displacement (2003-2017), the pope prayed for the spread of peace and justice, serene coexistence and human fraternity."

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