Pope Francis In War-Torn Iraq: Balm Of Inter-Faith Harmony

Seven years after it fell to ISIS, the turnaround in the situation was such that Pope Francis could visit Mosul to acknowledge the assistance Christians received from Muslims

The turnaround in the situation was such that Pope Francis could visit Mosul seven years after it fell to ISIS

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In 2014, thousands of demoralised Iraqi soldiers threw their weapons, and uniforms to mix with people fleeing Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in the face of a major ISIS attack. The retreat with the collapse of two divisions of the American-trained, equipped, and funded Iraqi army further weakened the legitimacy of the Iraqi government and triggered global panic about the imminent fall of Baghdad.

The potential doomsday scenario left Iraqis with no option but to close ranks. Christian militia Babylon Brigade was among those that fought ISIS under the umbrella of al-Hashd al-Shaabi, which was raised to fight the terrorist group on Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s wajib al-kifah (obligation to fight) fatwa.

Babylon Brigade fought side by side with the Muslim militias and created conducive conditions for Christians to return to their homes in places such as Mosul. The turnaround in the situation was such that Pope Francis could visit them in Mosul seven years later during his trip to Iraq in March 2021.

Francis acknowledged the assistance Christians received from Muslims when they returned to Mosul and the harmonious coexistence between the two communities

The Iraqi government rolled out a red carpet for Francis when he visited the city to promote inter-religious harmony. Iraqi flag-waving children in festive dresses lined the streets of Mosul, which was virtually reduced to rubble and ruin in the fighting against ISIS, as the Pope arrived at Mosul’s Hosh al-Bieaa Church Square. 

The pope called for reaffirming ‘our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than death, that peace more powerful than war.’ He led prayers in Mosul’s Christian area as his audience sang, prayed, and held olive branches.

The Church of the Holy Immaculate Conception in the largely Christian town of Qaraqosh damaged in the war was renovated ahead of his visit. Francis became the first to lead prayers in the renovated church. 

The Christians of the region trace their roots back almost as far as the time of Jesus. Their areas were rebuilt in Mosul with the help of international aid and Christian charities.

Francis visited Mosul to a rapturous reception ‘as a pilgrim for peace.’ He told a gathering at a church used as a prison during ISIS’s occupation of the city there that terrorism and death never have the last word. 

Francis said even amid the ravages of terrorism, they can see, with the eyes of faith, the triumph of life over death. He acknowledged Iraq’s history of pluralism and hoped its legacy will persevere. Pope’s visit and comments were shot in the arm for Iraq’s efforts to negate the Western projection of the war on ISIS in sectarian terms. 

Francis called religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity ‘a hallmark of Iraqi society for millennia.’ He added it is a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to be eliminated.

A cross erected in Mosul’s Church Square in Francis’s honour was crafted from wooden chairs rescued from churches across the region.

Francis prayed for the victims of the war in the backdrop of ruins. Francis also visited Erbil to thank the local community there for offering refuge to Christians and others during the war. ‘You have protected Christian communities when ISIS attacked.’

The pope’s visit to the ancient city of Ur, believed to be the Prophet Abraham’s birthplace, was a reminder of how there is more that unites than divides Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity trace their roots to Abraham, who avowed monotheism. 

After a ceremony next to an excavated part of the city known as the House of Abraham, Pope returned to Baghdad later in the day and held a mass at the Chaldean Catholic cathedral of St Joseph.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi earlier welcomed Francis upon his arrival in Iraq for the first-ever four-day papal visit. A choir was arranged for the pope when he entered the airport, where crowds waved Iraqi and Vatican flags to welcome him. 

People danced and sang as Francis left the airport for a ceremonial welcome at the presidential palace. The pope’s motorcade passed by traffic circles where Vatican’s yellow and white flags fluttered. 

The pope spoke about Iraq’s diversity, which he said was to be treasured at the presidential reception. He later addressed leaders of various denominations at the cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide 

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