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Pope Francis Concludes Iraq Trip With More Visits To Christian Towns

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start with Pope Francis's historic trip to Iraq. Today is his last full day in the country. He visited northern Iraq, focusing on the dwindling Christian communities there. And in the city of Mosul, the pope got this musical greeting.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).

MARTIN: There was also a highly symbolic moment in Mosul when Pope Francis led prayers amid the rubble of churches destroyed or heavily damaged during the fight against ISIS three years ago. NPR's Alice Fordham is in Erbil in northern Iraq and is with us now.

Alice, welcome. It's always good to have you with us.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Thanks so much.

MARTIN: So where else did the pope's visit take him today?

FORDHAM: Well, after that visit to Mosul, he visited one of the mainly Christian towns in the Nineveh plain area called Qaraqosh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FORDHAM: So after this ecstatic arrival and greeting by people there, he led prayers in a church, which was one of many burned and gutted by ISIS. They finished the restoration only just in time for his visit. And then he led Mass here in a stadium in the city of Erbil, a place where the Christian population was swelled when people fled ISIS in 2014. And many of them never went back or haven't gone back yet.

MARTIN: What was the main message of these events today? Was there one?

FORDHAM: Yes, I think there was. So this is an area of Iraq that has historically had a big and ancient Christian community. It's been scattered by conflict since the invasion in 2003, and that chaos and destruction were really accelerated by the rise of ISIS seven years ago. It can be more straightforward for Christians than for Muslims to get asylum elsewhere, and so many people have left.

And so the pope remembered the victims of the conflict, but he also spoke about rebuilding. He spoke in Erbil - I saw him this afternoon - about not seeking revenge. And he said things about not having a narrow idea of community and faith, but the importance of inclusion, of building an open society. And I've spoken to several priests here and to local leaders, and they very much hope that his message will encourage Christians to return to their villages, to stay in Iraq and to build a diverse Iraqi society.

MARTIN: So what impression do you think today's visit made on the people of northern Iraq?

FORDHAM: It was definitely a huge and happy moment and unimaginable a few years ago, when we were in the thick of this horrific battle to retake this area from ISIS. And not only for Christians - I have spoken to Muslims and other people who are excited about this moment. But, of course, it is a big moment for Christians. In the stadium today, I spoke to a lady named Reem Khalid. She's from Mosul, and she saw on TV the pope's visit there today when he was stepping on a red carpet amid rubble and ruins.

REEM KHALID: (Non-English language spoken).

FORDHAM: And she said it was a happiness, and it gave her hope that an important person like the pope would come and see what happened in Mosul. She said her neighborhood was burned by ISIS. It was destroyed. And the situation is still bleak. She said there were 75 Christian families in her part of Mosul, and now there are only 10. She's displaced in Erbil. She's not planning to go back to the city.

And in those villages and towns we've talked about in the Nineveh plain, historically Christian areas, fewer than 50% of people have come back, according to Christians and to priests and to charities that I've spoken to. But that lady, Reem Khalid, did say that the pope's visit might encourage some Christians to think twice about leaving the country altogether.

MARTIN: So, Alice, I do feel like I need to ask about the public health aspect of this. I mean, haven't COVID cases been on the rise in Iraq?

FORDHAM: They have. They've been low, but they have really increased rapidly lately. And public health experts were concerned about this trip. Today, two of the events were outside, but the one in Qaraqosh was one of several over these last few days in pretty crowded churches with singing choirs with not everyone wearing masks. And I think despite assurances of precautions by Iraqi officials, vaccination has barely begun here, and the events were not reassuring.

And I will say the trip came after a series of rocket attacks blamed on Iran-backed militias, so I think if the pope leaves tomorrow on his plane with no security incident, people will be breathing a sigh of relief about that.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, Alice, this trip had a very busy schedule for Pope Francis. How did he seem to handle it? How did he look?

FORDHAM: He speaks quietly, and he moves slowly. But I think seeing him as he's greeting people, particularly ordinary people, particularly these people who have suffered so much, he looks so joyous that it's hard not to be kind of caught up in his energy.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Alice Fordham in Erbil. Alice, thank you so much.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALT-J SONG, "SOMETHING GOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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