Pope Francis called for peaceful coexistence in Iraq”s war-ravaged north on Sunday, asking Christians in the country to forgive the injustices committed against them by Muslim extremists and rebuild as he visited church ruins.
The 84-year-old pontiff prayed for Iraqi war victims in areas where the country’s Christian minority fled Islamic State militants from 2014 to 2017 as part of the last day of the first-ever papal visit to the country.
Francis is visiting Iraq to encourage Christian communities to stay despite years of war and persecution.
Francis travelled to the northern city of Mosul on Sunday and prayed in a city square surrounded by the remnants of four damaged churches belonging to some of Iraq’s myriad Christian denominations.
The Islamic State overran the city in 2014 and declared a caliphate from northern Syria through Iraq’s north and west. The city held a deep symbolic importance for the group but was liberated in July 2017 after a nine-month battle.
Pope Francis travelled across the Nineveh plains to the small Christian community of Qaraqosh, where only a fraction of families have returned after fleeing the IS onslaught in 2014.
He prayed in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which was torched by IS and restored in recent years.
Pope meets father of drowned refugee boy
Pope Francis met Sunday with the father of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year old Syrian boy who drowned crossing the Mediterranean Sea in 2015.
The image of Alan’s body washed up on Turkish shores shocked the world and came to symbolise the perilous journey to Europe.
Following a Mass on Sunday in the Iraqi city of Irbil, Francis met with Abdullah Kurdi, the Vatican said.
Through an interpreter, the pope listened to Kurdi’s story and expressed sympathy for the loss of his family. Abdullah thanked the pope for his words.
The Kurdi family took the route of many Syrian and other migrants in 2015 by sea in a small boat from Turkey heading for Greece.
When their boat capsized, Alan Kurdi, one of his brothers and his mother perished.
The father now runs a charity in Irbil.
Calls for peaceful coexistence
On Saturday, he met with a powerful Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who said that Iraqi Christians should be able to live in peace.
Francis also held a landmark inter-religious gathering, giving a message of peaceful coexistence to communities.
Iraq declared victory over IS in 2017, and while the extremist group no longer controls any territory it still carries out sporadic attacks, especially in the north. The brutal three-year rule left behind lots of destruction.
The Christian minority was hit especially hard, with thousands fleeing the country, leaving behind homes and churches destroyed by extremists.
Francis hopes to deliver a message of hope, one underscored by the historic nature of the visit and the fact that it is his first international trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.