Pope’s Iraq visit kindles hope among many wanting to see country recover

Pope’s Iraq visit kindles hope among many wanting to see country recover

Only two years ago ISIS lost its last foothold in Syria after a five-year campaign against the extremist group. It had once ruled over millions in Iraq and Syria and carried out genocide. Four years ago ISIS still held out in parts of Mosul, on the right bank of the Tigris River.Now everything has changed and the visit of Pope Francis to Iraq is kindling hope among many who want to see the country recover from violence.Mosul Eye, a Twitter account that was run by Omar Mohammed, who survived under ISIS rule in Mosul, noted that he was comparing the time spent under ISIS and the “current moment of Pope Francis visiting Mosul.” He writes, “I am alive, I’ve never felt more alive.”Ali Al-Baroodi, another Mosul resident, also tweeted about the reopening of the 3rd Bridge in Mosul, one of many that cross the Tigris. It has been rehabilitated after a 2016 airstrike destroyed it.On Saturday the pope visited Shi’ite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani at his small apartment in Najaf. Sistani is a key figure in Iraq. He played an increasing role after the US invasion of 2003, and in 2014 issued a fatwa that called on many Shi’ites to join armed units to push back ISIS.This led to the creation of the Popular Mobilization Units. He was instrumental in calling for calm during protests in 2019 in which some armed militias killed protesters, apparently at the direction of Iran. Sistani’s guiding role behind the scenes has generally been seen as central to Iraq during periods of political chaos, weakened institutions, sectarianism and corruption.The meeting with the pope and Sistani therefore is a living symbol of coexistence that many Iraqis hope will be a hallmark of the post-ISIS period in Iraq.

Excitement for the pope’s visit has been clear across the country, from Shi’ite areas like Najaf to Mosul, a mostly Sunni Arab city, and also the autonomous Kurdish region.Christians in Iraq, whose numbers have declined over the last 20 years as terror attacks, ethnic cleansing and migration have harmed the community, are also enthusiastic. The pope was greeted by a lively folk song and dance event and many felt moved seeing images of him meeting Sistani.The Christian town of Qaraqosh, near Mosul, where some 50,000 people once lived before ISIS, has now been rehabilitated since its liberation in the fall of 2016.The only criticism so far of the pope’s visit has been an image that circulated showing Rayan al-Kildani, a Christian leader of a local militia that is close to the Badr Organization, which is itself close to Iran. He has been sanctioned by the US for being responsible for human rights abuses. There is no indication the pope chose to include Kildani – it appears he just came to an event.

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