This report was produced thanks to a contribution from Aid to The Church in Need

(Mosul) Engraved on the vault of the entrance, indelible over time, is a white cross. A lean man in his forties with shaven head comes to open the iron door in the ancient alley where you can only pass one at a time. Majdi Hamid Naqash , 45 years old, was the first Christian to return to Mosul after the city’s liberation from the clutches of the Caliphate.

“We were driven out and they destroyed the Christian symbols, but now the only thing that matters is that we are coming back to live in our city again,” points out Majdi Hamid Naqash. His family home, standing for over a century, was damaged in the fighting. The UN refugee agency gave him a hand by rebuilding some walls and painting them a cloying lilac colour. The lonely and courageous Christian is having a hard time, he is jobless, but he is determined not to give up. “Where should I go? Live as an illegal immigrant in Europe and end up under a bridge?” Naqash wonders. “My Muslim neighbours bring me some food and the church helps me. I’m no longer afraid. ISIS is finished.” Islamic State had seized his house marking it with the Arabic letter “nun” which means Nazarene, or infidel. All around still lies the rubble of the furious battle in the last redoubt of the Islamic State in ancient Mosul, west of the Tigris, a tangle of alleyways and houses.

The Christian, who has placed an image of the Madonna on his front door, is part of a small group of 70 families who have returned to Mosul.

A fraction of the Christian presence of the past.

“My dear Christian brothers and sisters from Iraq, who have testified to your faith in Jesus amid harsh sufferings, I cannot wait to see you,” the Pope announced yesterday in a video message on the eve of his departure for Iraq. “I am honoured to encounter a Church of martyrs. Thank you for your testimony!” Francis lands today in Baghdad for the historic journey to the cradle of civilisation and Christianity, which will last three days. A capital under heavy security measures, with the churches guarded by the Iraqi special forces in black uniforms is awaiting the Holy Father’s arrival. The authorities have proclaimed a total lockdown with the pretext of the virus, but in actual fact it is a measure to ensure maximum safety for Francis. In his heartfelt message, the Pope recalled the Christians who have undergone “harsh trials” and “images of houses destroyed, churches desecrated ” as well as “the wounds of affections left behind and abandoned homes”.

The message is addressed to all those Iraqis who have suffered from war and destruction: “Now I come to your blessed and wounded land as a pilgrim of peace and a penitent.” The Pope explained that he is arriving in Iraq, “in search of fraternity, animated by the desire to pray together and to walk together, also with brothers and sisters of other religious traditions, under the sign of our Father Abraham, who unites Muslims, Jews and Christians in one family.” Francis also spoke of the Yazidis, massacred by the ISIS cutthroats. “Finally I will be among you,” announced the Pope, who wants to bring “the affectionate caress of the whole Church” to the persecuted Christians of Iraq. And finally, he ended the video message with the traditional salute “Alsalam eleikum”, peace be with you.

The church of the Pure in Mosul was turned into a court and prison by ISIS and bombed by Allied warplanes. Now UNESCO is rebuilding it

During his visit to Mosul, the Pope will pray in the rubble of the great battle in the “capital” of the Caliphate, which destroyed churches and mosques. Unesco is spending 50 million dollars donated by the Arab Emirates to renovate the Square of the Four Churches, reduced to stone skeletons in the old part of the city, as well as the al-Nouri mosque, not far away, where Abu Bakr al Baghdadi proclaimed the Caliphate.

Isis used Al Tahera, the church of the Pure built in 1862, as a Taliban court and fearsome jail. The black lettering, “no entry by order of Islamic State”, still appears on the walls riddled with bullets. In front of the gutted dome, Anas Zeyad, a young engineer who is leading the work in the field, says, “We have finished removing 2500 tons of rubble. Ten ready-to-use explosive traps and a mined vest were found among the rubble” for suicide bombers. Used as an ISIS base, it was bombed by the allies supporting the advance of Iraqi troops. It will take another two years’ work to restore the Square of the Four Churches, the mosques at Nouri and the leaning minaret to its former glory.

On Sunday, Pope Francis will kneel before the impressive amphitheatre of war that has not spared the places of worship. Thanoon Yahya Yusuf is a blacksmith born in Mosul, but his family descends from the Christians of the ancient crusader stronghold of Acre, now an Israeli city. His brothers and sisters have emigrated to the United States, Jordan and Australia. On his living-room wall he has hung a picture of the Last Supper with Christ and the disciples. Many Christian friends have remained in Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, after fleeing in the face of the brutal advance of Islamic State in 2014. “I tried to explain that they could return, but you can’t persuade people to change heaven for hell,” Yusuf explains. And on the Pope’s visit, which he is awaiting with pride and joy, he admits with a joke not so far from reality, that “even if the Messiah arrived, the Christians who fled would not return to Mosul”.

Between the lockdown and security measures, Iraqis will see the Pope on TV. Not everyone is applauding the visit. Abu Ali al Askari, security officer of the Shiite militia, Kataeb Hezbollah, praised the launching of rockets two days ago against an American base. Washington has announced massive retaliation. Al Askari, after complimenting the “Iraqi resistance”, said he was “not very optimistic about the Pope’s trip” raising doubts “about inter-confessional dialogue in Ur”, the home of Abraham and a crucial stage of the visit.

By contrast, the Shiite brigades of the Guardians of the Blood, who on 16 February launched rockets against the American base in Erbil, where the Italian compound is also located, have welcomed “the visit of the Pope of the Vatican, a man who deserves respect” . And they have announced a truce during Francis’s trip to Iraq.

Part of the sculpture for the Pope in Mosul

Bashar Matti Warda, Archbishop of Erbil, reveals that “some religious fundamentalists are taking a hostile attitude on social media towards the Pope’s trip. Anything coming from the West is considered a crusade. These people see the Pope as the king of the crusaders arriving in the country as a missionary.”

In Baghdad this evening, Pope Francis, after his official visit to the Iraqi presidency, will meet the Christians in the cathedral of the Mother of Hope, where in 2010 jihadists massacred over 42 worshippers and 2 priests with bursts of machinegun fire during mass. The large drawings on the wall that protect the church depict the smiling pontiff with doves of peace flying around him. Father Majid Atalla will welcome Francis and he explains that, “The number of Christians has fallen due to wars and persecution, but we have to continue to bear witness to our faith in this land. This is why we need the Pope, to come among us to give us strength, courage and peace.”

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