President Barham Salih accompanied Pope down a red carpet to his flight. REUTERS
Pope Francis ended his historic tour of Iraq on Monday, departing by plane from Baghdad after visiting conflict-torn cities, meeting Muslim and Christian leaders and preaching peace and coexistence over war.
Francis waved one last time before boarding a plane flying the Vatican and Iraqi flags from its cockpit windows. President Barham Salih accompanied the 84-year-old pontiff down a red carpet to his flight.
During Francis’s trip, the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, he toured four cities, including Mosul, the former Islamic State stronghold where vast areas still lie in ruins, telling Iraqis that “peace is more powerful than war.” He said Iraq would “always remain with me, in my heart”.
The pontiff, who walked with a limp during parts of the frantic tour, also made a historical first in meeting Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric. Iraqis welcomed the pope and said it was a chance for the world to see their perpetually crisis-hit nation in a new light. Iraq suffers from chronic mismanagement and corruption, and a steady level of violence often linked to the region’s U.S.-Iran rivalry 18 years after the United States invaded.
Before ending his tour Pope visited the churches of Iraq destroyed by ISIS. Flanked by four ruined churches in the wrecked center of Mosul, Pope Francis on Sunday urged Christians to forgive injustices that drove them into exile and restore a historical heartland on the rubble of Islamic State’s barbarous rule.
The pope concluded his two-day trip to Iraq with two highly symbolic stops in areas long integral to the Christian presence in the country: Mosul, where Isis’s so-called caliphate was declared nearly seven years ago; and Qaraqosh, an ancient town on the Nineveh plains that bore the brunt of the group’s genocidal onslaught.
Yazidis, Turkmens and other minorities had joined the mass exodus in 2014, and most are yet to return to an area lauded throughout the ages as a patchwork quilt of coexistence. But community leaders joined in the enthusiastic welcome, with elders from across the region sitting alongside clerics in a Qaraqosh cathedral and later in a stadium mass in nearby Erbil.
“How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow,” Francis said inside the Church of Immaculate Conception. “With ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people, Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, who were cruelly annihilated by terrorism, and others forcibly displaced or killed.”