Pope Francis arrived in Mosul in northern Iraq on Sunday morning to music and celebrations, media outlets reported.
This was an extraordinary scene, because just a few years ago, the same area where he stood was the central scene of fighting between Iraqi forces and ISIS, which had targeted Iraqi Christians for their expulsion from Mosul when they arrived in 2014.
Now, in a momentous turn of events, the pope is in the heart of Mosul, a living symbol of coexistence, hope and renewal. Many in Iraq expressed hope for the visit and how it is symbolic of Iraq’s ability to overcome ISIS.
The visit comes a mere day after the pope had met Shi’ite leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The trip to Mosul was fraught with questions about security and also about where and how he would hold ceremonies.
Najeeb Michaeel, the Archbishop of Mosul and a Chaldean Catholic, welcomed the pope upon his arrival. In his speech, he stressed the importance of healing the region and its people.
People who suffered under ISIS said they could not believe their eyes as the event unfolded. Among them were political commentator Omar Mohammed, who ran the Mosul Eye news blog that reported the state of Mosul during the ISIS occupation.
Mosul had been decorated for the pope’s arrival, and messages of inclusion and diversity were put up and pushed. Women painted murals.
Nevertheless, the somber aspect of the visit is framed by the ruins of part of the city. Although much has been done to rehabilitate Mosul, much remains to be done to rebuild the old city, including fixing its mosques and churches.
There also exists a need to rehabilitate the rest of the city’s diverse population, including Yazidis, Kurds, Shebeks and other minorities who live in the area.
Jews also once lived in the region. Some have wondered why Jews were not included in the welcoming and historic ceremonies. Even though there are still a few Jews in Iraq today, with no publicly organized community, they could have come to the event from abroad.
In the large Christian town of Qaraqosh, called Bakhdida by the local Christians, there was a large turnout of thousands in expectation of the pope’s visit. The Nineveh Plains has many Christian towns that were damaged by the ISIS occupation. Some have been rebuilt, but many still lack a large, thriving Christian community.
The pope’s arrival at Erbil Airport in the Kurdistan Region, an autonomous region in northern Iraq, sparked excitement as well. Just two weeks ago, the airport was targeted by pro-Iranian militias firing missiles. Now, the pope was there.
There are thousands of Christians living in the Kurdistan Region, including many who fled ISIS and are now in Ainkara in Erbil. Many of the Christians in this region, such as those from Al-Qosh, also speak ancient Aramaic and other local dialects.
There is a Jewish tomb in Al-Qosh that has been rehabilitated in recent years. In the ancient times of early Christianity, the Aramaic or Syriac being spoken in northern Iraq was widespread across the region. It is considered one of the major languages of the church, along with Greek and Latin, according to scholars.
As the Pope arrived in Mosul he was greeted not only with music and speeches, but also with the ululations of the locals, the high-pitched chants that are typical of the region during celebrations.
The events in Mosul took place at Hosh al-Bieaa, or Church Square, surrounded by ruins from the war years. ISIS had once vowed to conquer Rome from Mosul, where it declared its caliphate and where it carried out genocide. Now, the pope spoke here about coexistence. According to Mosul Eye, the desire for greater coexistence dates from a 1971 meeting in the city between religious leaders.
Today, in the Middle East, the pope’s trip comes as many are seeking to turn a page from the extremism that has affected the region since the 1980s.
This coexistence is clear in the Gulf and Israel and among many countries, such as the UAE and the Kingdom of Jordan, which are making coexistence a national policy.
Countries such as Turkey, however, are run by far-right regimes that continue to push extreme nationalism and militarism instead of welcoming different minority groups.
Iraq also wants to join the list of places that are showcasing a new birth of this coexistence in the region. The Kurdistan Region has gone to great lengths to push diversity as a national value. For example, Christians play a key role in the government.
The major test is whether the continued threats of extremists such as ISIS and the sectarian militias in Iraq can be reduced.