Muslim and Christian residents in the ruined Iraqi city of Mosul have told Pope Francis of their lives under brutal Islamic State rule as the pontiff blessed their vow to rise up from ashes.
He told them “fraternity is more durable than fratricide”.
Francis flew into the northern city by helicopter on Sunday to encourage the healing of sectarian wounds and pray for the dead of any religion.
The 84-year-old pope saw ruins of houses and churches in a square that was the old town’s thriving centre before Mosul was occupied by Islamic State from 2014 to 2017.
He sat surrounded by skeletons of buildings, dangling concrete staircases and cratered ancient churches, most too dangerous to enter.
Pope Francis prays amongst the ruins of the Iraqi city of Mosul at the Hosh al-Bieaa centre for all the victims of war in the country and throughout the entirety of the Middle East. #PopeInIraqhttps://t.co/Ju9uXenv9D
“Together we say no to fundamentalism, no to sectarianism and no to corruption,” the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, Najeeb Michaeel, told the pope.
Much of the old city was destroyed in 2017 during the bloody battle by Iraqi forces and an international military coalition to drive out Islamic State.
Francis, who on a historic first trip by a pope to Iraq, was visibly moved by the earthquake-like devastation around him. He prayed for all of Mosul’s dead.
“How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilisation, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people – Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others – forcibly displaced or killed,” he said.
“Today, however, we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war.”
Intense security has surrounded his trip to Iraq.
Military pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns escorted his motorcade and plainclothes security men mingled in Mosul with the handles of guns emerging from black backpacks worn on their chests.
In an apparent direct reference to Islamic State, Francis said hope could never be “silenced by the blood spilled by those who pervert the name of God to pursue paths of destruction”.
He then read a prayer repeating one of the main themes of his trip, that it is always wrong to hate, kill or wage war in God’s name.
Fighters of Islamic State, a Sunni militant group that tried to establish a caliphate across the region, ravaged northern Iraq from 2014-2017, killing Christians as well as Muslims who opposed them.
Iraq’s Christian community, one of the oldest in the world, has been devastated by the years of conflict, falling to about 300,000 from 1.5 million before the 2003 US invasion and the brutal Islamist militant violence that followed.
Francis then flew by helicopter from Moul to Qaraqosh, a Christian enclave overrun by Islamic State but where families have slowly returned and rebuilt ruined homes.
In Qaraqosh, he received the most tumultuous welcome so far, with ecstatic thousands packing roadsides to get a glimpse.