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With the crumbling stone walls of the Al-Tahera (Immaculate Conception) Church behind him, Pope Francis called on Christians in Iraq and the Middle East to stay in their homelands.
The 84-year-old pontiff said the “tragic” exodus of Christians from war-scarred Iraq and the wider region “does incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned, but also to the society they leave behind”.
The IS attacks have forced hundreds of thousands of Christians in northern Iraq’s Nineveh province to flee. The Christian population in the country has shrunk to fewer than 400,000 from around 1.5 million before the US-led invasion of 2003.
On Sunday, the faithful gathered in the courtyard of the Al-Tahera Church, whose roof collapsed during fighting against the IS in 2017.
The church is one of the oldest of at least 14 churches in Nineveh province that were destroyed by the IS.
Boutros Chito, a Catholic Priest in Mosul, said the visit of the Pope would change the thinking of the people about the city, the ancient center that was still under ruins.
“Pope Francis will announce to the whole world that we are the people of peace, a civilisation of love,” Chito told AFP.
The heaviest deployment of security forces yet has been mobilised to protect Francis on what is perhaps the riskiest day of his historic trip to Iraq, where state forces are still hunting IS sleeper cells.