MOSUL, Iraq — After the Islamic State took control of Mosul seven years ago and declared it the capital of its caliphate, the terrorist group sought to strike fear deep into the West by vowing to conquer Rome.
But with the Islamic State pushed from the city, it was Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, who on Sunday came to Mosul. In an extraordinary moment on the last full day of the first papal trip to Iraq, Francis went to the wounded heart of the country, directly addressing the suffering, persecution and sectarian conflict that have torn the nation apart.
“Now Rome has come here,” Ghazwan Yousif Baho, a local priest who invited Francis to Mosul, said as he awaited the pope’s arrival. “He will bring his blessing to spread peace and brotherhood. It’s the beginning of a new era.”
Other popes have dreamed of visiting Iraq, but Francis is the first to make the trip. In doing so, he has sought to protect an ancient but battered and shrunken Christian community, build relations with the Muslim world and reassert himself on the global stage after being grounded for more than a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Following a prayer in Mosul for the dead, Francis went to the northern towns where many Christians now live, visiting a church packed with jubilant — and often unmasked — faithful in Qaraqosh, home of the country’s largest Christian population.
He crossed into Iraqi Kurdistan in a long and heavily armed convoy protected by helicopters. It raced past sprawling refugee camps toward Erbil, where he ended the day celebrating a Mass for thousands in a stadium. There too, the flaunting of social distancing restrictions raised concerns that the pope’s efforts to be close to his flock might endanger them.
But many Iraqi Christians have said that the chance to draw comfort and healing after years of incalculable misery outweighed the risk of contagion. The country’s trauma, and Francis’ efforts heal it, were on full display in Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city.
The pope arrived by helicopter. Below him, hollowed shells of mortared buildings and the rubble of houses stretched out like a vast quarry. Fighting between Islamic State militants and U.S.-backed Iraqi forces essentially flattened the once-vibrant and diverse city, leaving thousands of civilians dead.
“Mosul Welcomes You” read posters covering walls so pockmarked with bullet holes that it looked like a rash had broken out. Twisted wrought-iron railings jutted out from ruined buildings.
Francis spoke in a public square surrounded by the remains of four churches of different Christian denominations, all badly damaged or destroyed.
Children dressed in white and teenagers waving olive branches formed a corridor for the pope’s arrival, and a chorus in traditional dress ululated loudly.
“The real identity of this city is that of harmonious coexistence between people of different backgrounds and cultures,” Francis said, adding that the shrinking of the Christian population in Mosul — one of the oldest communities of its kind in the world — and across the Middle East did “incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned but also to the society they leave behind.”
“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,” Francis said. Thousands of Muslims, Christians and Yazidis, he said, “were cruelly annihilated by terrorism, and others forcibly displaced or killed.”
Mosul’s once-large Christian population dwindled to a few thousand in the years after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, and in 2014 ISIS expelled those who remained. Only about 350 Christians have returned since ISIS was driven out in 2017 — almost all of them to the more prosperous east side, which suffered far less damage.
“I especially welcome, then, your invitation to the Christian community to return to Mosul,” said Francis, who has praised young volunteers, Muslim and Christian, working to rebuild churches and mosques.
“I am sure it will be a first step for them to come back,” said Anas Zeyad, a Muslim engineer who is part of an international project to rebuild the churches. He said that Christians who had fled the city “have memories, they have Muslim friends, they have homes here.”
After praying for the dead, and for the repentance of their killers, Francis, who suffers from sciatica and limps heavily, took a golf cart to the Syriac Catholic church that ISIS had used as a courthouse. On the way, he passed a cartoon mural of three girls at play, their faces blacked out. ISIS forbade depictions of people and animals.
“We were living here in Mosul, all together, Christians, Muslims,” said Rana Bazzoiee, 37, a Christian and pediatric surgeon, who fled Mosul in ahead of the ISIS takeover in 2014. She said that, while a semblance of normalcy had returned to the city, the pope’s visit could improve things further. “Why not?” she said. “We lived together for a long time in Mosul.”
In his whirlwind trip, Francis has sought to make significant progress in tightening bonds between his church and the Muslim world. On Saturday, the country’s most powerful and reclusive Shiite, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, met with the pope and released a statement stressing that Christian citizens deserved to “live like all Iraqis in security and peace and with full constitutional rights.”
Francis called for brotherhood at a Saturday meeting of minorities on the desert plains of Ur, what tradition holds is the homeland of Abraham, revered by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.
Two earlier popes had tried and failed to visit Christians in Iraq, but it was Francis, who as pontiff has prioritized reaching out to the marginalized and forgotten, who succeeded.
On Sunday afternoon, the faithful in Qaraqosh, the largest town of the Ninevah Plains that are Iraq’s Christian heartland, thanked him for it. They lined the streets outside the al-Tahira Syriac Catholic Church, clapping and ululating as his vehicle approached.
Residents of Qaraqosh have spent the past three months preparing the town for the pope’s arrival and the past four years repairing the damage done by ISIS. For many, Francis’ visit was a chance to celebrate the community’s survival.
A young priest holding a scarf danced in the street near the church while a group of white-robed nuns on a rooftop held brightly colored balloons. Women and girls wearing traditional Christian dress, with brightly colored wraps embroidered with scenes of church and home life, waved olive branches.
Hundreds crowded into the church, prompting one Vatican official to complain to Iraqi organizers that there was not sufficient space between people in the pews. Masks were often disregarded. But the coronavirus seemed the least of attendants’ worries.
Qaraqosh, just 20 miles from Mosul, was overtaken by the Islamic State in 2014 and held for three years before being liberated by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces. Its 50,000 residents fled when ISIS arrived, and those who returned found burned and looted houses and badly damaged churches. About half the pre-2014 population never came back.
ISIS had turned many homes into car bomb factories — including that of Edison Stefo, a school principal who was among the parishioners waiting in the church.
He said he hoped the pope’s visit would encourage Christians to return.
“This is like a dream,” Mr. Stefo said. “We feel like he is one of us — that he is from our area and knows what we went through.”
The pope ended the day by celebrating Mass at a stadium in Erbil. In the days leading up to the visit, as coronavirus infections spiked in Iraq and concerns grew about potential crowds, the Vatican insisted that all events would be socially distanced and safe.
But priests organized trips to the Mass, packing buses with parishioners. More than 10,000 people, many in white hats emblazoned with the pope’s face, entered the stadium. They hummed along with chants and expressed joy and relief that a pope had finally come to find them.
Calling himself “a pilgrim in your midst,” Francis concluded the last public event of his trip, which ends on Monday when he returns to Rome. “Today,” he said. “I can see at first hand that the church in Iraq is alive.”
Sangar Khaleel contributed reporting from Erbil, Iraq.