Pope Francis landed early on Sunday at the airport in the Kurdish regional capital of Arbil in Iraq to cap his historic tour to the country with a visit to Christian communities that endured the brutality of a jihadist “caliphate”.
He held a brief meeting with regional president Nechirvan Barzani and his cousin, the prime minister Masrour Barzani befor proceeding to pray for “victims of war” outside a centuries-old church in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, heavily damaged by the Islamic State group.
Pope Francis said that the exodus of Christians from Iraq and the broader Middle East “does incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned, but also to the society they leave behind.”
The visit to Mosul follows an interfaith rally on Saturday where the pope reinforced his message of inter-religious tolerance and fraternity during the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, a country riven by religious and ethnic divisions.
Pope Francis’ trip to Iraq as a “pilgrim of peace” aims to reassure the country’s ancient, but dwindling, Christian community and to expand his dialogue with other religions.
The leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics on Saturday met Iraq’s top Shiite Muslim cleric, the reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who agreed that Iraq’s Christians should be able to live in “peace”.
The Christian community of Iraq has shrunk from 1.5 million before the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein to only 400,000 now, about one percent of the 40 million living in the Muslim-majority country.
Most of them had been living in the vast plains of the northern Nineveh province — which IS set in its sights in 2014.
Watching the horrors from afar at the time, Pope Francis said he was ready to come meet the displaced and other victims of war in a show of solidarity.
Pope Francis will also visit Qaraqosh, further east in the Nineveh Plain, which is one of Iraq’s oldest Christian towns.