El papa concluye su visita histórica a Irak con misa ante miles de fieles / In Erbil, thousands attend largest mass of Pope’s historic trip to Iraq

El papa comenzó la misa en latín, con la capa pluvial morada en la espalda y el solideo blanco en la cabeza, ante una asamblea silenciosa y recogida en el último día de su visita a Irak, la primera de un papa en ese país

Arbil, Irak.- El papa Francisco concluyó su histórica visita a Irak el domingo con una misa ante miles de fieles en el norte asolado por los yihadistas, llamando a los cristianos a “no desanimarse”.

Tras rezar por las “víctimas de la guerra” en los escombros de Mosul, la antigua “capital” del Estado Islámico (EI), el papa celebró la mayor misa de su viaje, bajo estrictas medidas de seguridad, informó AFP.

“Irak siempre estará conmigo, en mi corazón”, dijo el papa al concluir la ceremonia en Erbil, en el Kurdistán iraquí.

“He oído voces de dolor y de angustia, pero también voces de esperanza y de consuelo”, afirmó, ante miles de fieles antes de bendecir en árabe bajo el ululeo de la multitud.

A su llegada el pontífice, de 84 años, había aparecido de pie en el “papamóvil” ante miles de fieles en el césped o en las gradas del estadio Franso Hariri.

El papa comenzó la misa en latín, con la capa pluvial morada en la espalda y el solideo blanco en la cabeza, ante una asamblea silenciosa y recogida en el último día de su visita a Irak, la primera de un papa en ese país.

Vigilancia reforzada

Los guardaespaldas y las fuerzas de seguridad Estuvieron este domingo en alerta –como desde la llegada del papa el viernes– para esta misa en el estadio Hariri, que lleva el nombre de un político cristiano asesinado hace 20 años.

Pero el domingo consiguió acercarse a la multitud, primero en Mosul, donde deploró el exilio de los cristianos orientales desde un estrado construido en medio de las ruinas, a falta de iglesia que siga en pie.

Allí, el papa, que camina con dificultad a causa de una ciática, dio un paseo en un carrito de golf bajo los vítores de una pequeña multitud.

“El día más bonito”

“¡Es el día más bonito!”, exclamó Hala Raad, que lo vio pasar. “Ahora esperamos vivir con seguridad, eso es lo más importante”, dijo esta mujer cristiana, que huyó de Mosul durante la irrupción de los yihadistas y solo regresa para visitas cortas.

Luego, en Qaraqosh, un lugar de mártires cristianos a medio camino entre Mosul y Erbil, el pontífice llamó a una emotiva multitud a “reconstruir” y a “no desanimarse”. El número de cristianos ha pasado en 20 años del 6% al 1% de la población en Irak.

Si el papa viaja bajo alta protección en un país donde aún se esconden células yihadistas clandestinas, también tiene que lidiar con el covid-19 para su primer viaje en 15 meses.

Irak está en confinamiento total después de que las contaminaciones diarias superaron los 5.000 casos.

El papa y todos los periodistas y clérigos que le acompañaron fueron vacunados antes de su partida pero ninguno de los fieles en el estadio lo fue.

Hasta ahora han llegado a Irak 50.000 dosis de la vacuna y solo los médicos han podido recibirla.

“Gesto de amor”

“Es un viaje especial también en vista de las condiciones de salud y seguridad”, dice Matteo Bruni, el portavoz del Vaticano.

Pero se trata de “un gesto de amor a esta tierra y a este pueblo” que Francisco ha querido visitar desde la irrupción del EI en 2014 en Irak, y “cualquier gesto de amor es siempre un poco extremo”.

El papa tiene previsto salir de Irak hacia Roma el lunes por la mañana.

Antes de ir al norte del país, el pontífice viajó el sábado a Nayaf, ciudad santa musulmana chiíta en el sur, para reunirse con el gran Ayatolá Ali Sistani.

Éste le dijo que trabajaba para que los cristianos de Irak vivieran en “paz”, en “seguridad” y con “todos sus derechos constitucionales”.

Muchos cristianos siguen siendo reacios a regresar a su país de forma permanente.

Cuando en 2014 el EI tomó la llanura de Nínive, decenas de miles de personas huyeron y ahora son pocos los que confían en las fuerzas de seguridad que entonces les abandonaron, dicen.

Hoy, muchos aseguran que viven con miedo a los paramilitares, integrados en el Estado y que tomaron el relevo de los yihadistas. AFP

PHOTO HADI MIZBAN, ASSOCIATED PRESS

In Erbil, thousands attend largest mass of Pope’s historic trip to Iraq

Pope Francis held the largest mass of his historic Iraq trip Sunday after visiting war-scarred cities to comfort Christian survivors of the Islamic State group’s reign of terror.

The pontiff was greeted by thousands in a sports stadium in the Kurdistan region’s capital Erbil who had gathered despite fears the event could become a Covid-19 “super-spreader”.

The 84-year-old was driven in his white, windowless “pope-mobile” into the stadium, where jubilant worshippers sat socially distanced on white chairs spread out on the greens.

Others stood, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of Francis, in the stands ringing the Franso Hariri Stadium, named after an Iraqi Christian politician who was assassinated by extremists 20 years ago.

The faithful wore hats featuring pictures of Francis, and face-masks to protect them from Covid, as a second wave has driven up cases to around 5,000 new infections per day in Iraq.

The stadium seats around 20,000, but large swathes of the stands were empty after authorities had trimmed down the allowed attendance in recent days.

“It’s a special trip, also because of the conditions,” said Matteo Bruni, the Vatican’s spokesman, who described the visit to Iraq as “a gesture of love for this land its people”.

Iraq’s Christian population has shrunk to fewer than 400,000, from around 1.5 million before the US-led invasion of 2003.

Erbil has been a place of refuge for many Christians who fled violence over the years, including the onslaught from 2014 by the Islamic State group.

The heaviest deployment of security personnel yet is protecting Francis in northern Iraq, on what is perhaps the riskiest day of his historic trip.

The city was targeted just weeks ago by a deadly rocket attack, the latest in a series of strikes blamed on pro-Iranian forces.

‘The most beautiful day’

The visit to the north embodies a cause close to the pope’s heart: reaching out to Iraq’s traumatised Christian community.

Watching from afar in 2014 as IS swept across the northern province of Nineveh, Pope Francis said at the time he was ready to come and meet the displaced and other victims of war in a show of solidarity.

He fulfilled that promise on Sunday, first visiting Mosul, the onetime bastion of the Islamic State group, still largely in ruins.

With the partially collapsed walls of the centuries-old Al-Tahera (Immaculate Conception) Church behind him, Francis pleaded for Christians in Iraq and the Middle East to stay in their homelands.

He said the “tragic” exodus of Christians “does incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned, but also to the society they leave behind”.

Francis spoke to the faithful in the courtyard of the Al-Tahera 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 the jihadists.

The pope was driven around the historic Old City – largely razed during the grinding fight to dislodge the jihadists – in a golf cart.

“Today was the most beautiful day for us, being visited by the pope!” said Hala Raad, a Christian woman who had fled when IS seized Mosul but returned to see the pope.

“We hope to come back to Mosul in health and wellbeing. The most important thing is security – we want stability.”

‘Do not lose hope!’

The pontiff also held a prayer service in Qaraqosh, whose ancient church – named Al-Tahera, like the one in Mosul – was torched by the jihadists as they destroyed most of the town.

Residents of Qaraqosh have since rebuilt their homes with little government help and Al-Tahera too has been refurbished, its marble floors and internal colonnades buffed to host its most important guest yet.

Dressed in traditional embroidered robes, hundreds of the faithful – who speak a modern dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ – welcomed the pontiff with hymns and olive branches.

“Do not stop dreaming! Do not give up! Do not lose hope!” Francis urged those gathered. “Now is the time to rebuild and to start afresh.”

Pope Francis’s trip to Iraq as a “pilgrim of peace” aims to reassure the country’s dwindling Christian community, but also to expand his dialogue with other religions.

On Saturday, the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics 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”.

Pope Francis’s Iraq schedule

The pope’s programme in Iraq includes visits to the cities of Baghdad, Najaf, Ur, Mosul, Qaraqosh and Erbil. He will traverse some 1,445 kms in a country where tensions still linger and where more recently the scourge of Covid-19 has led to record numbers of infections.
Pope Francis will travel in an armoured car through the customary crowds that flock to catch a glimpse of the leader of the Catholic Church. At times he will be required to travel either by helicopter or plane over areas where jihadists belonging to the Islamic State group are still present.
Proceedings kicked off Friday with a speech to Iraqi leaders in Baghdad, addressing the security and economic difficulties confronting Iraq’s 40 million people. The pope also discusses the persecution of the country’s Christian minority.
On Saturday he was hosted in the holy city of Najaf by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest authority for many Shiites in Iraq and the world.
The pope also made a trip to the ancient city of Ur, which according to the Bible is the birthplace of the prophet Abraham, a figure common to the three monotheistic religions. There he prayed with Muslims, Yazidis and Sanaeans (a pre-Christian monotheist religion).
Francis continued his journey on Sunday in the province of Nineveh in northern Iraq, the cradle of Iraqi Christians, before heading to Mosul and Qaraqosh, two cities almost destroyed by jihadists.
The pontiff concludes his tour with an open-air mass on Sunday in the presence of thousands of Christians in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. This Kurdish Muslim stronghold has offered refuge to hundreds of thousands of Christians, Yazidis and Muslims who fled the atrocities of the Islamic State group.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)