AMMAN - Pope Francis Sunday visited Christian communities in Iraq's north, where the Islamic State group carried out its worst devastation, to bring encouragement and solace to those who suffered numerous atrocities and are trying to rebuild their homes and lives. Iraqis are also hoping to rebuild trust and hope for the future.
Joyous celebrations welcomed Pope Francis to Iraq's Christian heartland, first in Mosul where Iraqis shouted, "Viva Baba Francesco, long live Pope Francis, welcome to Nineveh." Surrounded by the ruins of Islamic State militant destruction, the pope led prayers for the victims of war, saying, "Hope is more powerful than hatred."
The pope then headed to the town of Qaraqosh, the heartland of Iraq's once thriving Christian community of 50,000, where only half the population has returned after the jihadists destroyed infrastructure and laid mines in homes. He urged Christians to forgive injustices perpetrated by Muslim extremists against them and rebuild their lives once again.
"So do not lose hope; do not lose faith. Remember that we need to forgive. Have good courage to continue fighting, to continue to seek forgiveness. And I know it is hard, but God can bring peace to this Earth," he said.
French Dominican Rev. Olivier Poquillon is helping to oversee the rebuilding of Mosul's Our Lady of the Hour Church, where Muslims, Christians and other communities "work together, engage together for the common good."
"It's really a bottom-up initiative," he said. "The idea came from the people of Mosul. We saw a young neighbor, he was probably born after the time of the American invasion, so he never knew the peaceful time of Mosul. And he told us, Oh, you are Christians, come back, come back; we need you to live in peace together."
Hassan Amer, a Muslim, works with Catholic Relief Services in the Nineveh Plains on projects to promote rebuilding devastated communities and interreligious trust. The "Shared Future Program'' receives funding from USAID.
"We work with communities from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds to common goals and establish and strengthening the relationships. Most importantly, building the broken trust among the communities on Nineveh Plains after years of displacement," he said.
For the Vatican, the continued presence of Christians in Iraq is vital to keeping alive faith communities that have existed since the time of Christ.