The Latest: Pope arrives at Qaraqosh church in northern Iraq

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Surrounded by shells of destroyed buildings people arrive to join Pope Francis who will pray for the victims of war at Hosh al-Bieaa Church Square, in Mosul, Iraq, once the de-facto capital of IS, Sunday, March 7, 2021. The long 2014-2017 war to drive IS out left ransacked homes and charred or pulverized buildings around the north of Iraq, all sites Francis visited on Sunday. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

QARAQOSH, Iraq (AP) — The Latest on Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq, aimed at rallying the country’s long-beleaguered Christian community and promoting interreligious tolerance (all times local):

11:20 a.m.

Pope Francis has arrived at a church in the Christian Iraqi town of Qaraqosh, once occupied by the Islamic State group.

A jubilant, ululating maskless crowd lined the main thoroughfare to welcome him as his motorcade slowly passed, heading to the church. Francis rolled down the window and waved to the crowd from his armored car, which was surrounded by Iraqi and Vatican security forces.

Francis is visiting the community on the Nineveh Plains where only a fraction of families have returned after fleeing the IS onslaught in 2014. He will hear testimonies from residents and pray in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which was believed to have been torched by IS and has been restored in recent years.

Organizers said some 600 people were expected inside the church, one of the largest indoor crowds Francis has seen in Iraq amid a spike of COVID-19 infections. Vatican and Iraqi church organizers had said social distancing and other anti-coronavirus measures would be enforced, but on Sunday caution and masks appeared to have given way to sheer enthusiasm that a pope was finally in Iraq.

Chaldean Catholic Patriarch, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako said Francis’ visit to Iraq was “miraculous” and had already borne fruits. Speaking to reporters in the Qaraqosh church courtyard he said: “Now everyone talks about Christians!”

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11 a.m.

Pope Francis has prayed for those killed in Iraq’s wars against the haunting backdrop of the ruins of four demolished churches in the northern city of Mosul, which suffered widespread destruction in the war against the Islamic State group.

As women ululated and a white dove was released in a sign of peace, Francis inaugurated a memorial to the dead on the final day of his visit to Iraq.

In words translated into Arabic, Francis prayed: “If God is the God of life – for so he is – then it is wrong for us to kill our brothers and sisters in his name. If God is the God of peace – for so he is – then it is wrong for us to wage war in his name. If God is the God of love – for so he is – then it is wrong for us to hate our brothers and sisters.”

He concluded the prayer saying: “To you we entrust all those whose span of earthly life was cut short by the violent hand of their brothers and sisters; we also pray to you for those who caused such harm to their brothers and sisters. May they repent, touched by the power of your mercy.”

IS captured Mosul in the summer of 2014 and ruled the city according to its brutal interpretation of Islamic law until 2017, when Iraqi and international forces liberated the city after months of heavy fighting that killed thousands of civilians.

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10:45 a.m.

Christian and Muslim leaders in Mosul have welcomed Pope Francis’ visit to the Iraqi city devastated by war and are calling on Christians who fled the Islamic State group’s onslaught to return.

In a moving scene that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, the pope mounted a stage in a city square surrounded by bombed-out churches and other buildings to deliver a message of peace and unity.

The Rev. Raed Kallo, the only priest in Iraq’s second largest city, shared his story among the crowd and before the pontiff. He fled along with most of his congregation of 500 Christian families when IS overran the city in June 2014.

But he said he returned three years ago, after the extremists were defeated by Iraqi and international forces in a grueling campaign that left much of the city in ruins. He said: “My Muslim brothers received me after the liberation of the city with great hospitality and love.”

But he said only around 70 Christian families reside in Mosul today. The rest are afraid to return and many have emigrated abroad.

Also addressing the crowd was Gutayba Aagha, a Muslim and the head of the Independent Social and Cultural Council for the Families of Mosul. In words welcomed by Francis, he said: “In the name of the council I invite all our Christian brothers to return to this, their city, their properties, and their businesses.”

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9:30 a.m.

The stage in Mosul where Pope Francis will speak is surrounded by the bombed-out ruins of churches and other buildings destroyed in the climactic battle of the war against the Islamic State group.

The pope is expected to pray for Iraq’s war victims in the country’s second-largest city, which was ruled by the extremists for nearly three years. Iraqi and international forces liberated Mosul in 2017 following months of street-by-street battles.

With the rubble as backdrop, Francis is expected to make a powerful appeal to Iraq’s Christians to remain and rebuild despite decades of war and instability. He is also expected to reprise his message of interreligious tolerance and fraternity in the Muslim-majority country that is home to several religious minorities.

The square is home to four churches representing different denominations, all left in ruins. A ceremonial throne painted gold with a sculpture of a dove awaited the pontiff at center-stage. Thousands of Iraqi security forces deployed in Mosul, which was largely shut down for the visit.

It was from Mosul’s al-Nuri mosque that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only public appearance when the group overran the area in the summer of 2014. His Friday sermon called on Muslims to follow him as “caliph.” He was killed in a U.S. raid in Syria in 2019.

IS no longer controls any territory in Iraq or Syria but still carries out sporadic attacks.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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