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Pope Francis visits Iraqi Christians who suffered under IS



Pope Francis, on his historic trip to Iraq, visiting Sunday Christian communities that endured the brutality of the Islamic State group of the jihadist "caliphate" was defeated three years ago.

The 84-year-old, who traveled under strict security, will lead a prayer "for the victims of the war" in Mosul, an ancient crossroads where the center was destroyed by fierce fighting to remove IS.

"We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion," Francis said at an interfaith service Saturday, one of the many stops on the first papal visit to the war-torn country.

 Pope Francis, travels under strict security in Iraq, will lead a prayer Pope Francis, who travels under strict security in Iraq, will lead a prayer "for the victims of the war" against IS in the city of Mosul Photo: AFP / Vincenzo PINTO

Pope Francis' trip to Iraq as a "pilgrimage of peace" aims to reassure the country's ancient but shrinking Christian communities and to expand dialogue with other religions.

On Saturday, the leader of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics met Iraq's top Shiite cleric, the returning great Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who agreed that Iraqi Christians should be able to live in "peace."

"We all hope that this visit will be a good omen for the Iraqi people," Adnane Youssef, a Christian from northern Iraq, told AFP. "We hope it will lead to better days."

The Christian community in Iraq, a Muslim majority country of 40 million, has shrunk from 1.5 million before the US-led invasion in 2003 that threw Saddam Hussein out to just 400,000 now, about one percent of the population.

 The rows of seats were set out in the ruins of the Syrian Catholic Church for the Immaculate Conception in Mosul's Old Town ahead of Pope Francis' visit Rows of seats were set up in the ruins of the Syrian Catholic Church by the Immaculate Conception in Mosul's Old Town in front of Pope Francis 39; visit Photo: AFP / Zaid AL-OBEIDI

"This very important visit will increase our morale after years of difficulties, problems and wars," said an Iraqi Christian leader, Father George Jahoula.

Back in 2014, when IS militants swept over a third of Iraq, Pope Francis had said he was ready to face the displaced and other war victims.

 Youth unfolded a poster who welcomed Francis to the ruins of the Syrian Catholic Church for the Immaculate Conception in Mosul Young people unfolded a poster welcoming Francis next to the ruins of the Syrian Catholic Church for the Immaculate Conception in Mosul Photo: AFP / Zaid AL-OBEIDI

Seven years later, after a stop early Sunday in the Kurdish north of Iraq, he himself will see the ruined old city of Mosul and efforts to rebuild it.

Pope Francis will also visit Qaraqosh, further east in the Nineveh Plain, one of Iraq's oldest Christian cities.

It was largely destroyed in 2014 when IS ravaged the area, but residents have been leaking back since 2017 and working slowly to rebuild their hometown. .

In honor of the pope, local artisans have a two-meter (6.5-foot) bean shell, or stolen, with the prayers "Our Father" and "Hail Mary", hand-sewn in golden thread in Syriac, a dialect of the language spoken by Jesus Christ, which is still used in Qaraqosh.

Security will be extra tight in northern Iraq, where state forces are still hunting for IS remains and sleeping cells.

Many thousands of troops and police have been deployed as the pope has crossed paths. land, take planes, helicopters and armored convoys to cover more than 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) in the country.

The other major challenge is the Covid-19 pandemic, as Iraq has recently been hit by a new wave, with an overview of more than 5,000 cases in one day.

Iraqi authorities have introduced lock-in measures to control the crowds, but thousands of faithful are expected to flock to a stadium later Sunday in the northern city of Arbil to hear the pope.

Arbil, the capital of Iraq's oil-rich northern Kurdish region, has been a relative haven for stability and a haven for many Christians fleeing IS.

Several thousand seats at Franso Hariri Stadium will be vacant to avoid creating a super-spreader event when Iraqis come to hear the Catholic leader, known here as "Baba al-Vatican", deliver the holy mass.


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