Huge security operation as Pope Francis visits Mosul to pray for victims of war
Roman Catholic leader Pope Francis has prayed for the "victims of war" outside a centuries-old church in Iraq's ruined city of Mosul, where the Islamic State terror organisation ravaged one of the world's oldest Christian communities until the defeat of the jihadist group three years ago.
Pope Francis visited Mosul on Sunday morning, accompanied by the largest security contingent yet mobilised to protect the pontiff, on what is regarded as the riskiest day of his historic trip to Iraq.
Islamic State undercover groups are still being tracked by government forces in the area around Mosul.
Speaking outside the partially destroyed Church of the Immaculate Conception, Francis made a plea for Christians in Iraq and the Middle East to remain in their homelands.
Pope Francis prays amongst the ruins of the Iraqi city of Mosul at the Hosh al-Bieaa centre for all the victims of war in the country and throughout the entirety of the Middle East. #PopeInIraqhttps://t.co/Ju9uXenv9D— Vatican News (@VaticanNews) March 7, 2021
The 84-year-old pontiff said the "tragic" exodus of Christians from Iraq and the wider region "does incalculable harm, not just to the individuals and communities concerned, but also to the society they leave behind".
The Islamic State onslaught forced hundreds of thousands of Christians in northern Iraq's Nineveh province to flee. Iraq's Christian population has shrunk to fewer than 400,000 from around 1.5 million before the US-led invasion of 2003.
'Life is short, time precious'
The faithful gathered on Sunday in the courtyard of the church, whose roof collapsed during fighting against IS in 2017. It is one of the oldest of at least 14 churches in Nineveh province that were destroyed by IS.
Boutros Chito, a Catholic priest in Mosul, said the pope's visit could change the way people think about his city, the ancient centre of which still lies in ruins.
"Pope Francis will announce to the whole world that we are the people of peace, a civilisation of love," Chito told the French AFP news agency.
The pontiff spoke of the Al-Nouri mosque and its famed al-Hadba minaret, which were destroyed in the fighting against IS, and the Church of Our Lady of the Hour which, he said, "has reminded passersby that life is short and that time is precious".
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