Pope Francis is visiting parts of northern Iraq that were held by Islamic State (IS) militants on the third day of his historic trip to the country, the BBC reported.
Christians were among those targeted by IS when they seized the region in 2014, carrying out human rights abuses.
he Pope has arrived in the city of Mosul where he is praying among the ruins of its churches, several of which were destroyed during the fighting.
Later he will celebrate Mass in Irbil, with up to 10,000 attendees expected, the BBC noted.
There are fears the ritual could become a coronavirus super-spreader event.
Iraq has seen a sharp rise in Covid-19 infections over the past month. The 84-year-old leader of the Catholic Church and his entourage have all been vaccinated, but Iraq only received its first batch of doses last week.
The four-day trip, which began on Friday, is the pontiff’s first international excursion since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago, and the first ever papal visit to the country, the BBC reported.
After arriving in Irbil, he was welcomed by the head of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, Nechirvan Barzani.
He then travelled by helicopter on to Mosul where he visited Church Square to pray for the victims of the war with the Islamic State group, which left thousands of civilians dead.
Surrounded by the tottering ruins of the square’s four churches, he said the exodus of Christians from Iraq and the broader Middle East had done ‘incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned but also to the society they leave behind’.
Referring to the historic region of Mesopotamia, which covered much of modern Iraq including Mosul, Pope Francis said: ‘How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilisation, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people – Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others – forcibly displaced or killed.
‘Today, however, we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war.’
IS desecrated Christian places of worship, beheading religious statues and planting booby-trap bombs.
A cross erected on Church Square in honour of the Pope’s visit was crafted from wooden chairs rescued from churches across the region, Middle Eastern news outlet The National reports.
The pontiff is also due to visit nearby Qaraqosh to see Iraq’s largest church, which was partly destroyed by IS.
People gathered in the town in joyful anticipation of his visit.
‘I can’t describe my happiness, it’s a historic event that won’t be repeated,’ said Yosra Mubarak, 33, who was three months pregnant when she left her home seven years ago with her husband and son, fleeing the violence.
‘It was a very difficult journey, we fled with only the clothes we’re wearing… There was nothing left [when we returned], but our only dream was to come back and here we are and the Pope is coming,’ she told Reuters news agency.
About 10,000 Iraqi Security Forces personnel have been deployed to protect the Pope during his visit to Iraq, while round-the-clock curfews have also been imposed to limit the spread of Covid.