French President Emmanuel Macron met this week with Iraqi Christians at a Catholic church in Mosul that was heavily damaged by the Islamic State.
The French president said on Aug. 29 that he was visiting Our Lady of the Hour Church in northern Iraq to reaffirm his “commitment to the centuries-old ties that unite us with the Christians of the Middle East.”
À Notre-Dame de l'Heure, au cœur de Mossoul, pour redire mon attachement aux liens pluriséculaires qui nous unissent aux chrétiens d'Orient. La France œuvre pour la pluralité qui est la richesse du Moyen-Orient. pic.twitter.com/wv89TACFAG
Our Lady of the Hour is a Catholic church and monastery of the Dominican religious order built between 1866 and 1873. It was damaged in April 2016 during the Islamic State occupation when an explosive device destroyed the church’s Marian grotto, which had been modeled after that of Lourdes.
At the church, Macron urged Iraq’s religious communities to work together to rebuild and pledged France’s help in the process.
“We will bring back a [French] consulate and schools,” Macron said at the church, according to AFP.
In 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) invaded Mosul and the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq, displacing hundreds of thousands of people. After ISIS forces were driven back westward in 2016, Christian families began returning to their homes.
The French president also visited the 12th-century Al-Nouri Mosque in Mosul, which the Islamic State blew up during the last days of the battle on Mosul in 2017. The mosque is where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the ISIS caliphate on June 29, 2014.
Both the Catholic church and the mosque are part of a UNESCO rebuilding project, called “Revive the Spirit of Mosul,” funded by the United Arab Emirates. The UAE has pledged $50.4 million to help rebuild historical landmarks in the city.
“Daesh [ISIS] has pushed thousands of threatened Iraqis to leave their country. We have invested heavily to allow these displaced populations to return. Concretely investing means supporting numerous infrastructure, education, and health projects. We will continue,” Macron wrote on Twitter on Aug. 28.
During his trip to Iraq, Macron met with several Christian leaders, including Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Najib Mikhael Moussa of Mosul, Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf of Mosul, and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Mar Timotheus Musa Shamani of the Mar Mattai Monastery in the Nineveh Plains.
Archbishop Moussa 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.
Archbishop Olivier de Germay of Lyon, France, was also part of the delegation visiting Iraq. In a homily on Aug. 29 at the Church of Our Lady of the Hour, Archbishop de Germay encouraged Iraqis “to take up the challenge of forgiving those who persecute us.”
Following Macron’s trip to Iraq, Cardinal Louis Raphaël I Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch, expressed criticism, saying that the president’s trip revived a myth, “that of the West that defends Christians in other areas in the world,” reported Agenzia Fides, the news service of the Pontifical Mission Societies.
“We have seen many Western political and military ‘missions’ in the Middle East, we have seen so many promises of help, and in the end it all remains at the level of empty words, if not worse. Let’s think about what happened in Afghanistan,” Sako said.
“Let us think of the many promises made recently to Lebanon, which continues to struggle in a very serious crisis. The reality is that Western countries cannot do anything, especially now that they are all busy solving their economic problems and concentrating their resources in the fight against the pandemic.”
The patriarch added that some Sunni imams had been critical of Macron’s visit, which he said jeopardized “the restoration of a fabric of harmonious coexistence between the different ethnic and faith communities.”
“In this regard, Macron’s visit did not help, it was a missed opportunity and even risked fueling mistrust among Muslim fellow citizens,” the cardinal said.
“The last thing for the Christians here to do is to put their trust in Western politics. If France opens a consulate in Mosul or builds an airport there, these are not matters that concern the bishops and the things that the bishops must ask the local civil authorities.”
Macron’s two-day trip to Iraq followed a similar itinerary to Pope Francis’ apostolic visit to the country earlier this year, beginning in Baghdad and ending in Erbil. The French president also met in Baghdad with Iraqi Nobel Prize laureate Nadia Murad, two days after she had a meeting with the pope at the Vatican.
Pope Francis visited Iraq for three days last March to strengthen the hope of the country’s persecuted Christian minority and foster fraternity and interreligious dialogue.
In Mosul, the pope recited a prayer in Hosh al-Bieaa, a square in the city’s historic center 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.
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In his prayer, Pope Francis referred to Our Lady of the Hour Church, which is known in Mosul for its clock tower.
“Lord our God, in this city, we see two signs of the perennial human desire for closeness to you: the Al-Nouri Mosque, with its Al-Hadba minaret, and the Church of Our Lady of the Hour, whose clock for more than a century has reminded passersby that life is short and that time is precious,” the pope said.
“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. 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.”
This report was updated at8:58 a.m. MDTto include comments by Cardinal Louis Raphaël I Sako.
Courtney Mares is a Rome Correspondent for Catholic News Agency. A graduate of Harvard University, she has reported from news bureaus on three continents and was awarded the Gardner Fellowship for her work with North Korean refugees.