Pope Francis prayed Sunday for "victims of war" outside a ruined church in Iraq's Mosul, where ISIS ravaged one of the world's oldest Christian communities until the extremists' defeat three years ago.
With the partially collapsed walls of the centuries-old Al-Tahera (Immaculate Conception) Church behind him, Pope Francis made a plea for Christians in Iraq and the Middle East to stay in their homelands.
The 84-year-old pontiff said the "tragic" exodus of Christians from 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 ISIS onslaught forced hundreds of thousands of Christians in northern Iraq's Nineveh province to flee. Iraq's Christian population has shrunk to fewer than 400,000 from around 1.5 million before the US-led invasion of 2003.
The faithful had gathered on Sunday in the courtyard of the Al-Tahera Church, whose roof collapsed during fighting against ISIS in 2017. It is one of the oldest of at least 14 churches in Nineveh province that were destroyed by the extremists.
The pontiff also hailed the Al-Nouri mosque and its famed al-Hadba minaret, which were destroyed in the fighting against ISIS, and the Church of Our Lady of the Hour which, he said, "has reminded passersby that life is short and that time is precious".
Pope Francis's trip to Iraq as a "pilgrim of peace" aims to reassure the country's dwindling Christian community and to expand his dialogue with other religions.
On Saturday, he met Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric, Ali Sistani, who agreed that Iraq's Christians should be able to live in "peace".
"We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion," Francis said at an interfaith service in the ancient site of Ur later that morning.