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Pope Francis visits Iraq’s ruined city of Mosul

MOSUL: Pope Francis, on a historic trip to Iraq, flew into the city of Mosul by helicopter to encourage the binding of sectarian wounds and to pray for the dead of any religion.

Muslim and Christian residents of Mosul told Pope Francis of their lives under the brutal rule of Islamic State as the pontiff blessed their vow to rise up from ashes. The 84-year-old pope walked past ruins of houses and churches to a square that was once the thriving centre of the old town. The northern city was occupied by Islamic State from 2014 to 2017.

“Together we say no to fundamentalism. No to sectarianism and no to corruption,” the archbishop of Mosul, Najeeb Michael, told the pope. Pope Francis sat on a white chair surrounded by skeletons of buildings and dangling staircases.

Mosul’s Old City is home to ancient churches and mosques that were destroyed in 2017 during the bloody battle by Iraqi forces and an international military coalition to drive out Islamic State.

The corruption and infighting among Iraqi politicians has slowed efforts to rebuild Mosul and large parts of the city remain in ruins. The pope, visibly moved by the devastation around him, prayed for all of Mosul’s dead.

READ MORE: Pope Francis holds historic meeting with Iraq’s top Shia cleric

“How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, 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.”

In an apparent direct reference to Islamic State, he 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, the first by a pope to Iraq, that it is always wrong to hate, kill or wage war in God’s name.

The Islamic State ravaged northern Iraq from 2014-2017, killing Christians as well as Muslims who opposed them.  On Saturday, he held a historic meeting with Iraq’s top Shia cleric Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf and visited the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, condemning violence in the name of God as “the greatest blasphemy”.