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Pope Francis calls for forgiveness in heart of former ISIS 'caliphate' in Iraq

"How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow," the pope said in Mosul.

Amid the ruins of the former Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, Pope Francis prayed for people of all religions who had suffered at the hands of the extremist group Sunday, the final day of his historic tour of Iraq.

Surrounded by the gray, hollowed-out shells of four churches, the pope was greeted by a jubilant crowd in a city that was once the heart of ISIS' so-called caliphate and that witnessed the worst of the terrorist group's rule, including beheadings and mass killings.

"How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow," Francis told the crowd, many of them waving Iraqi flags.

Speaking in Italian, he said "many thousands of people," including Muslims, Christians and members of the ancient Yazidi community, had been "cruelly annihilated by terrorism."

In what appeared to be a direct reference to ISIS, Francis, 84, said fraternity, hope and peace could never be "silenced by the blood spilled by those who pervert the name of God to pursue paths of destruction."

Pope Francis prays for war victims at Hosh al-Bieaa Square in Mosul's old city Sunday.Abdullah Rashid / Reuters

The square is home to four churches — Syriac Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox and Chaldean — each left in ruins.

"Today, however, we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace is more powerful than war," he said.

Later, in the town of Qaraqosh, Francis told the packed Church of the Immaculate Conception that "forgiveness" is a key word for Christians.

"The road to a full recovery may still be long, but I ask you, please, not to grow discouraged. What is needed is the ability to forgive but also the courage not to give up," he said.

Mosul was overrun by ISIS in June 2014 and became its bureaucratic and financial backbone.

It was from Mosul's al-Nuri mosque that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then the leader of ISIS, made his only public appearance when he gave a Friday sermon calling on all Muslims to follow him as "caliph." Al-Baghdadi was killed in a U.S. raid in Syria in 2019.

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After fierce fighting, the city was liberated in July 2017 after a nine-month battle, resulting in thousands of deaths. However, corruption and political infighting have slowed efforts to rebuild the city, large parts of which remain in ruins.

Iraq's Christian minority, one of the oldest in the world, suffered an especially hard time under the group's rule, and many members were forced to flee, leaving behind homes and churches that were destroyed or commandeered by the extremists.

The country's Christian population fell to fewer than 250,000 from an estimated 1.4 million before the U.S. invasion of 2003, according to a 2019 report by the State Department.

"The pope came with a message of peace, not only for Christians but for all Iraqis," Rayan Polis, who is a retired high school teacher and a Christian from Mosul, said by telephone. "I hope that other Iraqis from other religions would understand this message in order to live in peace and build this country to make it great again."

Polis, 54, said only a few Christian families decided to return to Mosul; the rest either moved to the northern Kurdistan region or left the country altogether.

Raed Shamoon, a shop worker from the city, said he hoped the pope's visit could persuade the Christian community to return.

Francis later traveled to a Christian community of Qaraqosh, 20 miles southeast of Mosul, where people gathered with olive branches and balloons to welcome him. He was to end the day with a Mass in a stadium in Erbil, in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region, that was expected to draw up to 10,000 people.

It is the pope's first international trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Francis resisted calls to postpone the trip during the country's new wave of coronavirus cases and a spate of rocket attacks as a bitter U.S.-Iran rivalry plays out on Iraqi soil.

Throughout his trip, he has stressed religious tolerance while being blanketed in intense security.

On Saturday, he held a historic meeting with Iraq's top Shiite cleric, appealing for greater interfaith unity, and visited the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham — a unifying prophet in Islam, Christianity and Judaism.