“The Church in Iraq is Alive”. Christians Celebrate The Pilgrim Pope

“The Church in Iraq is Alive”. Christians Celebrate The Pilgrim Pope

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

Qaraqosh (Iraq) The Christians of Qaraqosh, persecuted by Isis, have been thronging the streets for hours, waiting to greet Francis, the first pilgrim pope to visit Iraq. Olive branches, photos of Bergoglio and Vatican flags create the setting for a great, unforgettable day of celebration. The Christians are colourful. The first we meet are heavily bearded Lebanese monks in grey robes and cowls, walking barefoot to the cathedral. A young mother has brought her little son dressed as the Pope. Some Rambo figures of the special security forces dressed in black and armed to their teeth have even put the flags of Iraq and the Pope on their bulletproof vests. A young priest and nun dancing wildly and singing at the top of their voices organise a choreography, shrieking the refrains in Italian at the crowd. A patrol of nuns is posted on a roof, including Patrizia, the only Italian in Iraq, who runs a kindergarten in Qaraqosh.

Jubilation greets the Pope’s arrival as the helicopter appears over Mosul. The crowd goes wild when they catch a glimpse of the Holy Father waving. Everyone wants to take selfies, but security is strict and Christians are satisfied with the photos with his image printed on a flyer. Before the cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, half burned down by Isis, the Pontiff blesses the entrance door that opens onto a part of the church that is still blackened.

“I encourage you: do not forget who you are and where you come from! Do not forget the bonds that hold you together, your roots!” the Pope begins before the altar still blackened by fire. Bergoglio urged Christians to remember that “forgiveness is needed on the part of those who survived the terrorist attacks. Please do not to grow discouraged. We need the ability to forgive, but also the courage not to give up.” As a memento the Pope received two stoles bearing the symbols of the crosses destroyed by Isis and he returns to Iraq a sacred book that miraculously escaped the Caliphate’s advance, having been taken to safety in Italy.

The Pope’s dedication as the guest of honour of the cathedral is moving: “From this destroyed and rebuilt church, a symbol of hope for Qaraqosh and all of Iraq, I invoke from God, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, the gift of peace…”

A few hours earlier, Francis was in Mosul, the former capital of the Caliphate, amid the shocking scenario of destruction of the Square of the Four Churches that was turned into a Taliban court and a terrible jail by Isis. Eventually the allied coalition against terrorism bombed it and razed it to the ground. “How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilisation, was struck by such an inhuman storm in which ancient places of worship were destroyed and thousands of people, Muslims, Christians, Yazidis – were killed,” Bergoglio declared before the rubble as he prayed for all the victims of the war.

The last stage of the historic three-day trip to Iraq is the mass at the stadium in Erbil, Kurdistan before a crowd of 10,000 people. When Francis arrives aboard the popemobile and drives around the stadium, the Christians are in raptures. Young and old run after the Holy Father as if he were a rock star. At the altar he shows many signs of old age, limping visibly, but the service is moving and Bergoglio avows that this journey “will remain forever in my heart”. In his homily he launches the message of resistance. “Today, I can see at first hand that the Church in Iraq is alive, that Christ is alive and at work in this, his holy and faithful people.”