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Pope Francis Closes Out Trip To Iraq

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

On the third and final day of a historic papal visit to Iraq, Pope Francis focused on the plight of its dwindling numbers of Christians. He denounced the devastation of ancient Christian communities by the terrorist group the Islamic State. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is traveling with the pope and joins us now on the line from Erbil.

Welcome to the program.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Thank you, Lulu. Good to be with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The pope traveled to the north, Iraqi Kurdistan, much of which was under ISIS control for three years. You are there now. Where did he go?

POGGIOLI: Well, first, he went to Mosul. This is one of the most ancient cities in the world and the one the Islamic State, ISIS, established as its capital. For three years, ISIS fighters ravaged the region, attacking both Muslims and Christians in their effort to try to establish a caliphate. An estimated 500,000 people were forced to flee from Mosul alone.

The pope, when he was there, saw signs of the devastation. He walked past the ruins of houses and churches. What was really striking about the atmosphere today was the contrast between very intense security along the roads between towns where all traffic had been banned but were lying heavily armed police and soldiers. And then in the towns, it was huge crowds, intense jubilation, people surrounded by rubble and ruin.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in Italian).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Italian).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Long live Pope Francis, they're saying. That's amazing audio and just such a historic visit. What was the pope's message?

POGGIOLI: Well, he delivered a greeting and a prayer in Mosul saying that fraternity is more durable than fratricide. In his greeting, he spoke with really great emotion. He said the forced displacement of so many Christians did incalculable harm not just to their communities, but to the entire multi-religious fabric of Iraqi society.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POPE FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "Here in Mosul," he said, "the tragic consequences of war and hostility are all too evident. How cruel this country is, the cradle of civilization, how cruel it was to have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient palaces of worship destroyed and many thousands of people - Muslims, Christians" - and here, he added with great emphasis - "Yazidis who were cruelly annihilated by terrorism."

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Then he went to Qaraqosh, Iraq's principal Christian town.

POGGIOLI: Yeah. There, too, when we entered the town, the streets were lined with large crowds of people, many women wearing traditional dress and colorful fabrics. And they waved local flags and Vatican flags. And here the pope listened to a young woman describe how she and her family had to flee ISIS and the horrors she saw. And then the pope spoke, and he said, we see everywhere the signs of the destructive power of violence, hatred and war. But even amid the ravages of terrorism, war, we can see with the eyes of faith the triumph of life over death.

And he ended the day pretty tired, I have to say - it's been a very intense day - celebrating Mass in the stadium of Erbil before a crowd that was restricted to 10,000, although it has a seating capacity of 30,000. This was all to observe social distancing restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There were a lot of issues and concerns about this trip - obviously, security and also visiting in the midst of a pandemic. The Vatican insisted all precautions were taken. And in terms of security, the pope for the very first time traveled around in an armored vehicle. And as I said, there was a huge deployment of police and army. But on the COVID front, I have to say these last three days, I saw far more people not wearing masks than people with masks. And as far as social distancing - not much of it.

Now, the pope, his entourage and the traveling media were all vaccinated. But you know, very few or - if any, of the many thousands of Iraqis who gathered to see the pope have gotten their shots. So I think that issue is going to hang over this trip, which was nevertheless really historic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli traveling with the pope in Iraq.

Thank you very much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 7, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this report incorrectly said that much of Iraqi Kurdistan was formerly controlled by the Islamic State and that Mosul is part of Iraqi Kurdistan. In fact, the Islamic State didn't take over much of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Mosul is not part of Iraqi Kurdistan.