Amid scars of war, Iraqi archbishop readies for pope
Amid the cleanup and reconstruction, the priest has ensured some scars of war from IS's brutal campaign remain – a broken chalice, a smashed cross on a church bell tower – to remember the horrors the Christians of Iraq's Nineveh plains have survived.
"We forgive, without forgetting," said Michaeel, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, as he visited Karamlesh and other war-ravaged Christian villages of northern Iraq. "But the most important thing is that joy enters the hearts of all, because this is not a simple formal visit – it is a spiritual moment," he said with an infectious smile.
Since he learnt that Pope Francis would visit Iraq in March, the clergyman has seen his workload double.
"We're under enormous pressure: the Holy Father is not your average person – he's the representative of a state and of all Catholics worldwide," Michaeel told journalists.
Ancient churches in ruins
Pope Francis has previously shied away from using bullet-proof vehicles in favour of a more open "popemobile", the better to meet people, but that may be difficult in a country where security threats still linger. Aged 84, he may also struggle to make his way through the uneven pavements and debris-filled alleyways of Mosul.
Liberating Mosul from "Islamic State"
What has happened in Mosul since the operation to retake the city from the so-called "Islamic State" started in October? Photo essay by Nadine Berghausen
Iraqi army discovers a mass grave: while Iraqi troops advanced further into territory held by the so called “Islamic State” in their campaign to recapture Mosul, they found a mass grave which holds about 100 bodies, many of them decapitated. AP footage shows bones and decomposed bodies dug out of the ground by a bulldozer. This Iraqi federal police officer holds a stuffed animal he found on the site
Evidence of brutality: the grave, found near the town of Hammam al-Alil near Mosul, proves to be a dark testimony to the Islamic State′s brutality. IS militants have carried out a series of massacres since seizing large areas of southern and central Iraq in 2014. This photo shows a member of the Iraqi security forces inspecting a building that was used as a prison by Islamic State militants in Hammam al-Alil
Freed from terror: these displaced Iraqi men from the Hammam al-Alil area celebrate their liberation as they return to their homes after the recapture of their village from Islamic State by Iraqi forces
Oil fields on fire: oil wells have been set ablaze by IS in an apparent response to the ongoing military offensive to drive the extremist group out of its stronghold. A military commander said more than 5,000 civilians have been evacuated from eastern parts of Mosul and taken to camps. The surprise attack showed that even while under siege, the group could still sow chaos in parts of Iraq far from its base in Mosul
What is the fight for Mosul all about? Smoke rises during clashes between peshmerga forces and IS militants in the town of Bashiqa, east of Mosul. Initially used by IS to establish their caliphate and henceforth the key source of prestige and resources, Mosul is also the base for IS′ chemical weapons operation. The ancient Assyrian city has also been a vital source of tax revenue and forced labour
The role of the Iraqi army and its allies: Iraqi special forces take cover as their unit comes under fire from an Islamic State sniper. Together with Kurdish peshmerga and Shia militias, Iraqi forces intensified fighting and moved into more densely populated areas of the city without air support from the US-led coalition due to the high risk of civilian casualties
Kurdish peshmerga: meanwhile, Kurdish peshmerga forces decided to focus on other strongholds of resistance in northern Iraq and on the Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk, where IS initiated a campaign of violence in response to the advances of the Iraqi army towards Mosul
Fleeing from the fighting: the United Nations says over 34,000 people have been displaced from Mosul since the operation began on 17 October, with about three quarters settled in camps and the rest in host communities
"Everyone is going to want to get close to him, so it's a huge job," said Michaeel. "All security officials are going to be on their toes."
Michaeel checks on preparations by local choirs and scout troops. He also coordinates with priests who will translate masses between Latin, Arabic, Italian and a form of Aramaic, the ancient language of Jesus Christ, that is still spoken in Iraq's north.
It will be a first for the pope, too, as he will preside over his first-ever liturgy in the Eastern rite.
There is no cathedral or stadium large enough to hold the numbers of worshippers expected to turn up for a mass in Nineveh province, but authorities are working on a possible open-air venue.
In the interim, Michaeel is checking on more than a dozen churches – many dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries – that remain in ruins. One is Miskinta Church, still heavily damaged, but the worst is the church of Saint Simon, its stone walls collapsing and its crypts filled with rubble and rubbish.
"Mosaic of a thousand colours"
Michaeel, a native of Mosul, a melting pot of Iraq's diverse ethnic and religious communities, worked as an oil engineer before he answered a calling to join the Church. He is well known for his work in 2014 saving hundreds of rare manuscripts and scrolls by piling them into his car as IS was approaching.
Now, Michaeel wants to show the pope the beauty of Iraq's patchwork of minorities.
"This country is a mosaic of a thousand colours, and you can't leave it broken apart the way it is today," he said.
Michaeel told journalists that the pope's "strong words, his blessing, and his moral support" would help bring communities back together. It is a view that lies at the heart of the pope's visit, especially when he holds inter-religious prayers at the ancient city of Ur in Iraq's south.
It is the site where Abraham, the father of three religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – is thought to have been born.
"This tour across Iraq is extremely important," said Michaeel. "Not just for Christians but for all Iraqis." (AFP)