Pope bids farewell to Iraq after a historic visit

Pope Francis concludes his Apostolic Journey to Iraq that took him to 6 cities and sites.

He comforted the people, especially Catholics and Christians, harshly tried by sectarian violence and terrorism, and appealed for tolerance, fraternity, hope and peace.

Pope Francis on Monday left Iraq, bringing the curtain down on the 33rd apostolic journey of his pontificate, and the first visit of a ponriff to the Middle Eastern country. After celebrating Mass in private at the Apostolic Nunciature, he left for Baghdad’s international airport after bidding farewell to the staff and friends at the nunciature. Awaiting him at the airport were President Barham Salih and his wife. After a brief private meeting with Salih at the VIP lounge, the Holy Father was accompanied by him over the red carpet to the steps of the aircraft where he greeted Iraqi and Vatican delegations before boarding the plane. An Alitalia aircraft carrying him, his entourage and reporters flew out of the Iraqi capital at 9:54 am local time. He is expected to land in Rome at 12:45 pm, after a flight of a little over 5 hours.

The 4-day foreign visit, which began on Friday, came after a gap of a little over 15 months, because of the Covid-19 pandemic. His last international trip was to Thailand and Japan in November 2021. During the 4 days in Iraq, Pope Francis made Baghdad has base from Baghdad from where he flew to Najaf, Ur, Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh.

In the spirit of the motto of the apostolic journey - “You are all brothers” – from Matthew’s Gospel, the 84-year-old Pope encouraged Iraqis on this path, saying that only when they learn to look beyond their differences and see each other as members of the same human family will they be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding the country. Thus, they will leave future generations a better, more just and more humane world.

The Pope’s visit has a great significance not only for Iraq but also for the entire Middle East region, especially for Syria. In the footsteps of Christ, the Good Shepherd, the heart of the pastor of the Universal Church went out to seek his sheep, bruised and battered by sectarian strife and terrorism. Caressing them, he assured them they are not forgotten.

Sunday, the third day, was the most touching of the 4 days, flying north to visit Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh. There too he reiterated his appeal for fraternity, hope and peace. Listening to the Muslims and Christians of the ruined city of Mosul, about the brutality they faced under the terror of Islamic State (IS), the Pope Francis blessed their resolve to rise from the ashes, joining hands together. “Fraternity is more durable than fratricide, hope is more powerful than hatred, peace more powerful than war,” the Pope assured them during prayers for the dead.

Iraq's Christian community, one of the oldest in the world, has been particularly devastated by the years of conflict, falling to about 300,000 from about 1.5 million before the U.S. invasion of 2003. Taking advantage of the chaos that followed, the IS militants overran northern Iraq in 2014 in a bid to establish a caliphate in the region. It carried out its brutal onslaught against Christians, minorities and even Muslims who opposed them. Much of the old city of Mosul was destroyed in 2017 during the bloody battle by Iraqi forces and an international military coalition to drive out the terrorists.

In Mosul, the Holy Father was visibly moved to see the extensive destruction all around him with the wrecked shells of churches, homes and buildings amid the debris.

In Qaraqosh, a Christian stronghold that was overrun by IS fighters, the Pope visited the Church of the Immaculate Conception, whose courtyard was used by the militants as a firing range for practice. He urged the local Christian community to rebuild their communities based on forgiveness and fraternity. Before returning to Baghdad on Sunday, the Holy Father celebrated an evening Mass for some 10,000 people in the stadium of Erbil. At the end of the Eucharistic celebration, which the last public event of his Iraqi trip, Pope Francis bade farewell to the nation. "Iraq will always remain with me, in my heart,” he said. During his time among them, he said, he “heard voices of sorrow and loss, but also voices of hope and consolation”. He encouraged them to “work together in unity for a future of peace and prosperity that leaves no one behind and discriminates against no one”. “I pray that the members of the various religious communities, together with all men and women of good will, may work together to forge bonds of fraternity and solidarity in the service of the good and of peace. He concluded saying “salam, salam, salam”!