Pope Francis holds mass in the Iraqi city of Mosul on March 3. Photo by Vatican Media via Twitter.
During a speech at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul in July 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called on his terrorist acolytes to continue the so-called ISIS caliphate’s campaign of nihilistic violence all the way to the conquest of Rome.
“You will conquer Rome and own the world,” al-Baghdadi, who was then the leader of the Islamic State (IS) group, also known as ISIS, said from the pulpit.
It was not to be.
Seven years later the caliphate is no more and al-Baghdadi is dead. And in a particularly symbolic gesture to mark the demise of the Islamic State group’s twisted designs, Pope Francis — leader of the Roman Catholic Church — performed mass in liberated Mosul on Sunday.
Standing amid the ruins where coalition warplanes had bombed the remnants of IS into submission in 2017, and only yards away from where al-Baghdadi had pledged to conquer Rome, Francis denounced the “hatred and violence” that gave rise to IS.
“We reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war,” said the 84-year-old Vatican leader.
“This conviction speaks with greater eloquence than the passing voices of hatred and violence,” he continued, “and it can never be silenced by the blood spilled by those who pervert the name of God to pursue paths of destruction.”
While in Mosul, the pope visited sections of the city that had been devastated by the fighting. A military security detail accompanied the pontiff’s convoy through the war-torn city. At the historic “old city” quarter, Francis surveyed the remnants of destroyed homes and ancient churches, and spoke with Muslims and Christians who survived the IS occupation.
“How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed,” Francis said during his Sunday sermon, which was given in a square surrounded by ancient churches destroyed during the battle to liberate Mosul from IS.
Bombed into submission by a US-led air campaign, IS lost its so-called caliphate and has been reduced to isolated cells operating from the shadows across Iraq and Syria. (The militancy has also steadily expanded its footprint in other regions, such as Afghanistan and West Africa.) For his part, al-Baghdadi killed himself in 2019 after being cornered during a US special operations raid in Syria.
Nevertheless, the Islamic State group’s brief blip of existence as a territorial power has left scars of death and destruction across Iraq and Syria that may take generations to fully heal.
In a matter of months in 2014, the terrorist army took over broad swaths of Syria and Iraq, including Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul. After al-Baghdadi declared the creation of IS’ so-called caliphate in 2014, the terrorist army went on a spree of nihilistic violence.
Those atrocities included the genocide of Yazidis in Sinjar, the sexual enslavement of captured women from ethnic and religious minorities, the beheadings of captured journalists, and the immolation of a captured Jordanian fighter pilot. Within the caliphate, punishments were harsh and doled out arbitrarily. Limbs were hacked off for minor infractions. And, according to news reports, IS militants tossed homosexual men from rooftops and then pelted their bodies with stones.
IS published snuff videos of its wanton violence on the internet, drawing new recruits into its ranks from around the world, as well as inspiring other so-called “lone wolf” terrorist wannabes to carry out their own improvised attacks.
In the summer of 2014, it looked like IS was going to march on Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, until a US-led coalition air campaign — Operation Inherent Resolve — stalled the IS advance on the outskirts of Mosul. The war subsequently devolved into a static stalemate that endured until Iraq’s combined armed forces, supported by Operation Inherent Resolve airstrikes, retook all the territory previously won by IS. Those forces liberated Mosul in 2017.
The US declared victory over the Islamic State group in March 2019 after the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces overran the terrorist group’s final stronghold in the Syrian village of Baghuz. Since 2014, Operation Inherent Resolve has helped liberate 42,471 square miles of territory, and some 7.7 million people, from IS occupation.
As a territorial power, the caliphate is no more. Yet, the underground IS network of sleeper cells and sympathizers remains a lethal threat to Iraq’s religious minorities — particularly, Christians and Yazidis.
In 2003, between 1.5 million and 2 million Christians lived in Iraq, representing roughly 6% of the country’s overall population at that time of about 25 million. Today, the number of Christians is down to around 225,000 — about 0.006% of Iraq’s current overall population of more than 39 million. Iraq’s Yazidi population has also declined by roughly 18% over the same period.
About 100,000 Christians lived in Mosul prior to the US invasion in 2003. Roughly 5,000 remained in the city by the time of the IS takeover in 2014. Of that number, nearly all left in the course of one night after the militants issued an ultimatum, giving the city’s Christians 24 hours to either convert to Islam or be executed.
The Yazidis worship the “peacock angel,” which, according to some scholars, corresponds to Satan in the Abrahamic religions. IS militants resultantly singled out Yazidis as devil worshippers and treated them with a singular degree of brutality.
In 2014, IS invaded the Yazidi enclave of Sinjar in northern Iraq. The Islamist militants summarily killed thousands of Yazidis and kidnapped 7,000 women as sex slaves.
Seeking refuge from the onslaught, tens of thousands of Yazidis fled to nearby Sinjar Mountain; many died there from exposure while waiting for help. The Yazidis’ plight on Sinjar Mountain caught the world’s attention and ultimately spurred the US to launch the Operation Inherent Resolve bombing campaign.
With the help of those airstrikes, the Kurds fought through and opened up an escape corridor for the trapped Yazidis. By that time, however, about half a million Yazidis already had fled their homes to seek safety in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Across the country, Christians and Yazidis continue to live on edge, wary about publicly demonstrating their faiths for fear of violent reprisals.
A 2019 United Nations report found that only 3% of Yazidis displaced from Sinjar planned to return in the next year. And many of Mosul’s Christians refuse to return to the war-torn city, as well, citing their worries that IS sleeper cells still exist there.
The ongoing threat of violence has spurred a mass exodus among Iraq’s religious minorities, spurring what the Iraqi Human Rights Society has called a “slow genocide” among groups such as Christians and Yazidis. Now, these religious communities, which have existed inside Iraq for thousands of years, are at risk of disappearing altogether.
“The road to a full recovery may still be long, but I ask you, please, not to grow discouraged. What is needed is the ability to forgive but also the courage not to give up,” Francis told worshippers in the northern Iraqi town of Qaraqosh on Sunday.
Francis departed for Rome on Monday.
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