by Elise Harris
With the Iraqi Army currently embroiled in an effort to liberate Mosul and the Plains of Nineveh from the Islamic State, Pope Francis Sunday offered prayers for an end to violence in the country so it can move forward on the path of hope and reconciliation.
“In these dramatic hours, I am close to the people of Iraq, in particular those from the city of Mosul,” the Pope said Oct. 23.
“Our hearts are shocked by the heinous acts of violence that for too long are being committed against innocent citizens, whether they are Muslims, Christians or whether they belong to other ethnic groups and religions,” he said, and voiced his sadness that many have been killed “in cold blood,” including children.
This cruelty “makes us cry, leaving us without words,” he said, assuring of his prayers that despite it’s suffering, Iraq “may be strong and firm in the hope of moving toward a future of security, reconciliation and of peace.”
“For this I ask all of you to unite yourselves to my prayer,” he said, and led pilgrims in a moment of silent prayer.
Pope Francis spoke to some 50,000 pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his Sunday Angelus address. His appeal coincided with an ongoing operation by Iraqi and Kurdish military forces to retake the city of Mosul from the hands of the Islamic State.
On Oct. 17 Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced a ground offensive to retake Mosul, which has been months in the making. Mosul has been under the control of the Islamic State since June 2014.
In addition to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, U.S. troops, British and French Special Forces, and a number of Turkish soldiers are supporting the Iraqi army in the battle, which was initially expected to take between several weeks to several months to complete, however, the process has been going quicker than expected.
Mosul is the last major stronghold the Islamic State has in Iraq. They have been steadily retreating since the end of last year in battles against Iraqi and Peshmerga forces, as well as airstrikes from the U.S-led coalition.
The United Nations has warned ISIS is using civilians as human shields in the fight for Mosul, estimating that the militants have so far taken roughly 550 families from smaller towns close to Mosul in an effort to prevent them from leaving the area.
According to CNN, just withing the past few days 285 men and boys have already been used by ISIS as human shields, and their bodies dumped in a mass grave.
In his address, the Pope pointed to the Apostle Paul as a model for evangelizing in today’s world, reminding us that we must engage in missionary and pastoral activities with a spirit of sacrifice “as if the result depends on our efforts,” without, however, forgetting that our true success “is a gift of grace.”
“It’s the Holy Spirit who renders the mission of the Church in the world effective,” he said, stressing that “today is a time of mission and a time of courage!”
Courage, he said, “to strengthen faltering steps, to resume the flavor of spending oneself for the Gospel, to regain confidence in the strength that the mission brings with it. It’s a time of courage, even if having courage doesn’t mean having the guarantee of success.”
The Pope said we are being asked to have the courage “to fight, not necessarily to win; to announce, not necessarily to convert.”
We are being asked for the courage “to be an alternative to the world, but without ever becoming polemic or aggressive,” and to be courageous in opening ourselves to everyone, “without ever belittling the absoluteness and uniqueness of Christ, the one Savior of all.”
Francis emphasized the need to be courageous in resisting incredulity “without being arrogant,” and to mimic the attitude of the publican in the Gospel, “who in humility does not even raise his eyes to heaven, but beats his breast, saying ‘Oh God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’”
“Today is a time of courage! Today courage is needed!” he said, and closed his address by praying that Mary would intercede for all in becoming “missionary disciples who bring the message of salvation to the entire human family.”