Residents of Iraqi Christian enclave gather with olive branches and balloons to welcome pope

Iraq's Christian population of 1.5mln some 20 years ago now stands at 300,000

  
People wait for the arrival of Pope Francis near the Grand Immaculate Church, in the town of Qaraqosh, Iraq, March 7, 2021.

People wait for the arrival of Pope Francis near the Grand Immaculate Church, in the town of Qaraqosh, Iraq, March 7, 2021.

Reuters/Ari Jalal

QARAQOSH, Iraq - Waving olive branches, flags and balloons and dressed in colourful traditional robes, hundreds of residents lined the streets of the Iraqi town of Qaraqosh on Sunday waiting for the arrival of Pope Francis.

Francis will visit the town's restored Grand Immaculate Church - Iraq's largest - as part of a four-day tour of the country that aims to boost the morale of the country's small Christian communities.

The Christian enclave was overrun by Islamic State fighters in 2014, but since the militant were driven out in 2017 families have slowly returned and rebuilt homes that were left in ruins by the militants and the fighting that ousted them.

"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 said, beaming.

Mubarak now has three children, all of whom were wearing the traditional Qaraqosh clothes hand-knitted by her mother.

Speakers placed around the church blasted poems and hymns in Assyrian, one of which said: "hello hello in our town Pope Francis". Ululations of joy rang out in the pauses between the songs. Nuns and priests danced.

The excitement had been building far ahead of the pope's arrival. Some in the crowd said they had been there for hours.

Iraq's Christian population of 1.5 million some 20 years ago now stands at 300,000, and many of those want to leave because they see few prospects in a country where Shi'ite militias and sleeper militant cells still pose a threat. Iraq has been torn by war since the U.S. invasion of 2003 and the Islamist militant violence that followed.

The roads in and around Qaraqosh were sprinkled with checkpoints and armed officers.

"We are very happy, but the moment he leaves everything will go back to normal. We lived through very three very difficult years. We left our homes with just our clothes. I didn't even take my money," said Samia Marzina, 52, holding two balloons emblazoned with the pope's face.

Traces of burning inside Qaraqosh's church have been were left untouched, a reminder of the fragility of the Christian community in Iraq.

(Writing by Nadine Awadalla Editing by Frances Kerry) ((Nadine.Awadalla@thomsonreuters.com;))

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