Pope Francis on Sunday visited parts of northern Iraq that were held by Islamic State (IS) militants on the third day of his historic trip to the country.
Christians were among those targeted by IS when they seized the region in 2014, carrying out human rights abuses.
The Pope prayed among ruined churches in Mosul, the former IS stronghold, before meeting Christians in Qaraqosh.
In Mosul, he visited Church Square to pray for the victims of the war with the Islamic State group, which left thousands of civilians dead.
Surrounded by the tottering ruins of the square’s four churches, he said the exodus of Christians from Iraq and the broader Middle East had done “incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned but also to the society they leave behind”.
Referring to the historic region of Mesopotamia, which covered much of modern Iraq including Mosul, Pope Francis said: “How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilisation, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people – Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others – forcibly displaced or killed.
“Today, however, we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war.”
A cross erected on Church Square in honour of the Pope’s visit was crafted from wooden chairs rescued from churches across the region, Middle Eastern news outlet The National reports.
In the nearby town of Qaraqosh, the Pope met Christians in the ancient Church of the Immaculate Conception, which was once torched by IS and has now been restored.
The Roman Catholic leader arrived by motorcade at the stadium in Irbil on Sunday afternoon, switching to a Popemobile to the delight of those waiting.
Celebrating Mass at a stadium in Irbil, the last big set-piece of his visit, he said Iraq would remain in his heart.
“In my time among you, I have heard voices of sorrow and loss, but also voices of hope and consolation,” he told those attending.
“Now the time draws near for my return to Rome. Yet Iraq will always remain with me, in my heart.”
Thousands of people attended the service despite Covid concerns.
Iraq, which has seen more than 13,500 deaths with Covid-19 and more than 726,000 cases, has recorded a sharp rise in infections over the past month.
The 84-year-old leader of the Catholic Church and his entourage have all been vaccinated, but Iraq only received its first batch of doses last week.
The four-day trip, which began on Friday, is the pontiff’s first international excursion since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago, and the first-ever papal visit to the country.