Pope prays amid ruins of Iraqi churches destroyed by 'Islamic State'

Sunday, March 7

Pope Francis arrived in northern Iraq on Sunday where he prayed in the ruins of churches destroyed by the Islamic state and will later celebrate an open-air Mass.

His first stop Sunday was in Mosul, once a stronghold of the Islamic State. He prayed for Iraq’s war victims in a city square, among the ruins of several churches decimated by the militants.

After Mosul, Francis headed for Qaraqosh, an ancient Christian town that had been overrun by Islamic State forces, where he met with members of the local community at the Church of the Immaculate Conception.

The pope will celebrate an open-air Mass at the Franso Hariri stadium in Erbil before heading back to Baghdad. Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, attendance will be limited to 10,000 people.

On Saturday, the 84-year-old pope met with the reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani at the 90-year-old Muslim leader’s modest home in Najaf.

Sistani is one of the most important figures in Shiite Islam and wields considerable influence in Iraq and beyond.

The Christian presence in Iraq dates to the first centuries of the religion, but only a few hundred thousand Christians remain today.

Iraqi Christians are hoping Francis’ message of coexistence will help ease their lives in the mainly Muslim country where they find themselves frequently under attack from Shiite militia members.

This is the pope's 33rd trip outside Italy and his first in the last 15 months due in most part to COVID-19.

The pontiff is scheduled to return to Rome on Monday morning.