Muslim and Christian residents in the ruined Iraqi city of Mosul told Pope Francis of their lives under brutal Islamic State rule on Sunday as the pontiff blessed their vow to rise up from ashes and told them that "fraternity is more durable than fratricide."
Francis flew into the northern city by helicopter to encourage the healing of sectarian wounds and to pray for the dead of any religion.
The 84-year-old pope saw ruins of houses and churches in a square that was the old town's thriving center before Mosul was occupied by Islamic State from 2014 to 2017. He sat surrounded by skeletons of buildings, dangling concrete staircases, and cratered ancient churches, most too dangerous to enter.
"Together we say no to fundamentalism. No to sectarianism and no to corruption," the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, Najeeb Michaeel, told the pope.
Much of the old city was destroyed in 2017 during the bloody battle by Iraqi forces and an international military coalition to drive out Islamic State.
Francis, who on a historic first trip by a pope to Iraq, was visibly moved by the earthquake-like devastation around him. He prayed for all of Mosul's dead.
"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," he said.
"Today, however, we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war." Intense security has surrounded his trip to Iraq. Military pickup trucks mounted with machine guns escorted his motorcade and plainclothes security men mingled in Mosul with the handles of guns emerging from black backpacks worn on their chests.
In an apparent direct reference to Islamic State, Francis said hope could never be "silenced by the blood spilled by those who pervert the name of God to pursue paths of destruction."
He then read a prayer repeating one of the main themes of his trip, that it is always wrong to hate, kill or wage war in God's name.
Fighters of Islamic State, a Sunni militant group that tried to establish a caliphate across the region, ravaged northern Iraq from 2014-2017, killing Christians as well as Muslims who opposed them.
'AFRAID TO RETURN'
Iraq's Christian community, one of the oldest in the world, has been particularly devastated by the years of conflict, falling to about 300,000 from about 1.5 million before the U.S. invasion of 2003 and the brutal Islamist militant violence that followed.
Father Raid Adel Kallo, pastor of the destroyed Church of the Annunciation, told how in 2014 he fled with 500 Christian families and how fewer than 70 families are present now.
"The majority have emigrated and are afraid to return," he said. "But I live here, with two million Muslims who call me father and I am living my mission with them," he added, telling the pope of a committee of Mosul families who promote peaceful coexistence among Muslims and Christians.
A Muslim member of the Mosul committee, Gutayba Aagha, urged the Christians who had fled to "return to their properties and resume their activities". Francis then flew by helicopter to Qaraqosh, a Christian enclave that was overrun by Islamic State fighters and where families have slowly returned and rebuilt ruined homes.
In Qaraqosh, he received the most tumultuous welcome so far on the trip, with thousands of ecstatic people packing the roadsides to get of glimpse of their religious leader. Most were not wearing masks despite a rising number of COVID-19 cases in the country.
"I can't describe my happiness, it's a historic event that won't be repeated," said Yosra Mubarak, 33, who was three months pregnant when she left her home seven years ago with her husband and son, fleeing the violence.
Francis has stressed inter-religious peace from the start of his trip on Friday. On Saturday he held a historic meeting with Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric and visited the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, condemning violence in the name of God as "the greatest blasphemy".