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Pope Francis declares hope ‘more powerful than hatred’ during visit to Iraq

Francis called for “harmonious coexistence” of people from different backgrounds and cultures while leading a prayer at a square overlooking the ruins of the Syro-Catholic Church in Mosul’s Old City. Once an ISIS stronghold, the whole city has been completely destroyed in 2017, during the nine-monthslong battle over its control.

“Here in Mosul, the tragic consequences of war and hostility are all too evident,” Francis 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!”

Thousands of people were killed during the battle to recapture Mosul from ISIS, which controlled the city between 2014 and 2017.

The visit to Mosul came on the third day of the Pope’s tour of the war-ravaged nation, the first ever papal visit to Iraq and Francis’ first trip outside Italy since the coronavirus pandemic began. He has repeatedly denounced religious extremism and called for friendship between religions during the trip.
People attend a prayer led by Pope Francis for war victims at the Church Square in Mosul's Old City.

After leaving Mosul, Francis traveled to the Qaraqosh, the largest Christian city in Iraq. Like Mosul, Qaraqosh was also controlled by the ISIS terrorist group for more than two years.

The Pope visited the city’s Church of the Immaculate Conception, where he gave a speech and led a prayer. He was greeted by thousands of people there — a marked difference from his visits to other locations across Iraq. The government has imposed a total curfew for the entirety of the four-day papal visit to minimize health and security risks.

Late on Sunday, the Pope was scheduled to hold celebrate Mass at the Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil, according to Iraq state-run Iraqiya TV. Some 8,000 people have gathered at the stadium to welcome the Pope there, security officials told CNN. The plan had been to have the 35,000 seats stadium at some 50% capacity with an empty seat between each of the attendees to allow for social distancing, according to officials. However, images from the stadium showed swathes of the stadium stands filled with people seated closely together without social distancing.

Earlier Sunday, Francis met with Nechirvan Barzani, the president of the Kurdish Regional Government, the semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq.

The Pope is believed to have long wished to go to Iraq, which figures heavily in the Old Testament, and whose dwindling Christian minority has suffered greatly from the country’s long cycles of violence.

Thought to be one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, prior to the 2003 US invasion, there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Around 80% of them have since fled, according to leading Christian clerics there.

Children meet Pope Francis at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh, Iraq on Sunday, March 7, 2021.

He touched down in Baghdad on Friday, where he was met by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Francis later met with clerics and other officials at a Baghdad church that was the site of a bloody 2010 massacre.

On Saturday, the Pope held a historic meeting with revered Shia Muslim cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf before visiting Ur, the ancient Iraqi city where Jews, Christians and Muslims believe their common patriarch Abraham was born.

Francis then returned to Baghdad on Saturday afternoon and celebrated Mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of Saint Joseph. He is scheduled to leave Iraq on Monday.

CNN’s Tamara Qiblawi, Delia Gallagher, Aqeel Najm, Ben Wedeman, Ghazi Balkiz, Hamdi Alkhshali, Mohammed Muwafaq and Ben Westcott contributed reporting.

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