01:53 - Source: CNN
Pope Francis visits Iraqi church once attacked by ISIS
Erbil, Iraq CNN  — 

When Pope Francis greeted adoring crowds at an Erbil stadium for the final leg of his Iraq tour on Sunday, he showed up in an open-air vehicle. He did the same when he toured Mosul earlier, waving at a handful of onlookers against the backdrop of buildings destroyed during the war against ISIS.

The images that flashed on TV screens seemed a far cry from the Iraq of recent decades. Western heads of state and VIPs typically show up unannounced, with their itineraries a closely guarded secret. This has been standard practice in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion.

Francis flew back to Rome Monday and this trip has struck an entirely different note. The visit was announced nearly three months in advance. As violence intensified and coronavirus cases increased in Iraq, so too did the Pope’s resolve to carry on with the tour.

It was the 84-year-old pontiff’s courage which was repeatedly applauded throughout the trip, more than the words he spoke. His choice of popemobile on a potentially risky visit – open to the crowds rather than encased in bulletproof glass – seemed to represent the dissolving of barriers between the papacy and the country’s downtrodden.

To many in the region, glued to their TV sets over the last four days, it seemed that this trip straddled an old, dark chapter and something altogether new.

Pope Francis, surrounded by the shells of destroyed churches, attends a prayer for the victims of war at Hosh al-Bieaa Church Square, in Mosul, Iraq, once the de-facto capital of ISIS.

A bid to revive coexistence

It’s tempting to think of Francis’s visit as a trailblazing tour. This was the first-ever papal trip to Iraq, despite the country figuring heavily in the Old Testament. He boosted the visibility of an ancient Christian church that makes up less than a percentage point of Iraq’s population – around 300,000 Christians in a country of over 39 people – having shrunk by around 80% since the US invasion. He drew the world’s attention back to the war-torn country and this marginalized community in particular. He met with the widely respected Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, forming one of the most prominent Shia-Catholic summits in decades.

The Pope’s tour also highlighted the diversity that that has always formed the social fabric of the Middle East. Regional coexistence here is not the exception, but the norm, argues Rice University historian Ussama Makdisi, who authored several books on religious sectarianism in the Middle East.

Commenting on the Sistani meeting, Makdisi tweeted: “Impressive #PopeFrancis. Yet please note how common it is in the Middle East/Arab East for Muslims and Christians to coexist.”

“For many in the West it is a difficult and novel idea; for the Arab and Muslim world it is a quotidian centuries old reality,” he added.

Pope Francis holds the papal ferula (pastoral staff) as he leads mass at the Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil.

“The ISIS ‘caliphate’ was an aberration in the history of the modern Middle East, a symptom of geopolitical ruin & rot and violation of all people of the region,” Makdisi said in another tweet. “#PopeFrancisInIraq reminds us that coexistence is not to be taken for granted but worked for.”

This sentiment appeared to resonate with the crowd at the papal mass at Franso Hariri stadium in Erbil. Throngs of people ignored social distancing measures, despite a spike in the country’s Covid-19 cases, reveling in the euphoria of the moment.

Politicians, students, nuns and other congregants gathered at a seating area near the makeshift altar. With a crucifix brooch pinned to his brown Kurdish traditional outfit, Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government’s only Christian minister, Anwar Jawhar, told CNN: “Having the pope between us is empowering us to stay in the homeland of our fathers.”

Schoolteacher Hiyam Yousef kneeled in prayer throughout the mass.

Pope Francis delivered his address in Italian, and the crowd waited patiently for his words to be read out in Arabic. The pontiff promised to always carry Iraq in his heart, and as he ended his sermon with Salam, Salam, Salam, (peace, peace, peace), ecstatic cheers and ululations rang out through the stadium.

Local schoolteacher Hiyam Yousef had kneeled in prayer throughout the mass. When it finished, she said that one clear thought had crystalized in her mind: “There is hope for this land.”