Memorial to The Dead: Pope Prays Iraqi Erbil Set Free From ISIS

Published March 8th, 2021 - 07:18 GMT
Pope Francis holds a mass at the Franso Hariri Stadium in Arbil
Pope Francis holds a mass at the Franso Hariri Stadium in Arbil, on March 7, 2021, in the capital of the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region. Pope Francis held the largest mass of his historic Iraq trip Sunday after visiting war-scarred cities to comfort Christian survivors of the Islamic State group's reign of terror. The pontiff was greeted by thousands in a sports stadium in the Kurdistan region's capital Arbil who had gathered despite fears the event could become a Covid-19 "super-spreader". Safin HAMED / AFP
His trip marks the first ever papal visit to the country. 

Pope Francis today met with the father of the drowned three-year-old Syrian boy who died while trying to reach Europe during the migrant crisis six years ago and whose image sent shock-waves around the world.

The leader of the Catholic Church, 84, met with Alan Kurdi's father - Abdullah Kurdi - at the end of Mass in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil and listened to him as he spoke of his loss.

The scenes came just moments after the pope prayed for those killed in Iraq's war as he arrived to the battle-scarred city of Mosul where ISIS once vowed in its propaganda to 'conquer Rome' just four years earlier.

A statement from the Vatican today read: 'The pope spent a long time with him (Kurdi) and with the help of an interpreter was able to listen to the pain of a father for the loss of his family.' 

Mr Kurdi thanked Francis for his closeness to the tragedy and to the pain of 'all those migrants who seek understanding, peace and security, leaving their country at the risk of their lives,' the statement added.  

Alan Kurdi drowned along with his mother and brother when a smuggling boat taking them to Europe capsized off the coast of Turkey in 2015.

An image of his body washed up on the shore captured the world's attention as millions of Syrians fled the civil war there and many boarded unsafe ships bound for a Europe that eventually began shutting its doors. 

The pope's meeting with the father came as he prayed 'for all the victims of war and armed conflict' as he addressed congregants amid the haunting backdrop of four ruined churches in the northern city of Mosul, which were destroyed in the war against Islamic State (IS).

The visit came four years after the former self-proclaimed Isis chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi vowed to lead the conquest of Rome and called on followers to migrate to Iraq. 

During his audio recording, Baghdadi said: 'Those who can immigrate to the Islamic State should immigrate, as immigration to the house of Islam is a duty.

'Rush O Muslims to your state. It is your state. Syria is not for Syrians and Iraq is not for Iraqis. The land is for the Muslims, all Muslims. This is my advice to you. If you hold to it you will conquer Rome and own the world, if Allah wills.' 

As women ululated and a white dove was released as a sign of peace, the pontiff, who appeared without a mask but has received his Covid-19 vaccination, today inaugurated a memorial to the dead on the final day of his historic visit to Iraq, on Sunday.

His trip marks the first ever papal visit to the country. 

In words translated into Arabic, Francis prayed: 'If God is the God of life – for so he is – then it is wrong for us to kill our brothers and sisters in his name.

'If God is the God of peace – for so he is – then it is wrong for us to wage war in his name.

'If God is the God of love – for so he is – then it is wrong for us to hate our brothers and sisters.'

He concluded the prayer saying: 'To you we entrust all those whose span of earthly life was cut short by the violent hand of their brothers and sisters; we also pray to you for those who caused such harm to their brothers and sisters.  

'May they repent, touched by the power of your mercy.'

ISIS overran Mosul in June 2014 and declared a caliphate stretching from territory in northern Syria deep into Iraq's north and west. 

It was from Mosul's al-Nuri mosque that the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his only public appearance when he gave a Friday sermon calling on all Muslims to follow him as 'caliph'.

Mosul held deep symbolic importance for IS and became the bureaucratic and financial backbone of the group.

It was finally liberated in July 2017 after a ferocious nine-month battle in which between 9,000 and 11,000 civilians were killed, according to an Associated Press investigation. 

Al-Baghdadi was killed in a US raid in Syria in 2019.

Francis will travel by helicopter across the Nineveh plains to the small Christian community of Qaraqosh, where only a fraction of families have returned after fleeing the IS onslaught in 2014.

He will hear testimonies from residents and pray in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which was torched by IS and restored in recent years.

He will end the day with a Mass in the stadium in Irbil, in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region, which is expected to draw as many as 10,000 people despite fears it could become a super-spreader event.

He arrived in Irbil early on Sunday, where he was greeted by children in traditional dress and one wearing a pope outfit.

Iraq declared victory over IS in 2017, and, while the extremist group no longer controls any territory, it still carries out sporadic attacks, especially in the north.

The country has also seen a series of recent rocket attacks by Iran-backed militias against US targets, violence linked to tensions between Washington and Tehran.

The IS group's brutal three-year rule of much of northern and western Iraq, and the gruelling campaign against it, left a vast swathe of destruction.

Reconstruction efforts have stalled amid a years-long financial crisis, and entire neighbourhoods remain in ruins. 

Many Iraqis have had to rebuild their homes at their own expense.

Iraq's Christian minority was hit especially hard. The militants forced them to choose among conversion, death or the payment of a special tax for non-Muslims.

Thousands fled, leaving behind homes and churches that were destroyed or commandeered by the extremists.

Iraq's Christian population, which traces its history back to the earliest days of the faith, had already rapidly dwindled, from around 1.5 million before the 2003 US-led invasion that plunged the country into chaos to just a few hundred thousand today.

Francis hopes to deliver a message of hope, one underscored by the historic nature of the visit and the fact that it is his first international trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Public health experts had expressed concerns ahead of the trip that large gatherings could serve as superspreader events for Covid-19 in a country suffering from a worsening outbreak where few have been vaccinated.

The Vatican has said it is taking precautions, including holding the Mass outdoors in a stadium that will only be partially filled.

But throughout the visit, crowds have gathered in close proximity, with many people not wearing masks. 

The Pope and members of his delegation have been vaccinated, but most Iraqis have not.

This article has been adapted from its original source.     

© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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