Saadallah Rassam says he is the last Iraqi Christian left in Mosul’s Old City - but the 63-year-old fears his family’s 1,800-year heritage there is at an end.
Mr Rassam’s slim hope for the future of Mosul’s Christians now hinges on a momentous first visit from the Pope on Sunday. “I can’t tell you how important the Pope’s visit will be,” Mr Rassam said. “I will cry if I see him… I want to tell him to rebuild these churches and Christian homes.”
The capital of Nineveh province was once a cosmopolitan and diverse city on the banks of the Tigris River, with a population of 50,000 Christians before the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. But when Pope Francis visits on Sunday, he will stand amid the rubble of that heritage.
Mr Rassam's life story is intimately entwined with the historic district, where his stonemason forebears carved the ornate marble lintels and doorways of the old homes. “The engraving on this church was made by my ancestors 500 years ago,” he said, standing in the ruins of the Syriac Catholic Al-Tahira church.
“This is my father’s grave,” he said, standing on a patch of church ground scarred by mortar blasts. “All my grandparents are here.”
He now lives in a damaged church building, which he has filled with goods salvaged from nearby Christian homes. Lining the walls and piled in corners are books, clocks, and antiques, among them china plates commemorating the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
“This land belongs to my church, it felt like my responsibility to protect it,” he said of his motivation to return while so many Christians permanently left Iraq.
Since arriving on the first-ever papal visit to Iraq on Friday, the 84-year-old Pontiff has met Iraq’s prime minister and president, prayed at a Baghdad cathedral, held an historic meeting with the revered Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf and attended an interfaith meeting on the Plain of Ur.
But his visit to Nineveh will likely be the most poignant stop on his three-day itinerary for many Iraqi Christians, few of whom today live in the province that was once Iraq’s Christian heartland.
By the time Islamic State militants seized Mosul in 2014, years of sectarian violence had reduced the city’s Christian population to 2,000 families. The militants drove the remaining Christians from the city and their nearby towns on the Nineveh Plains, including Qaraqosh, where the Pope will also visit.
Since Iraqi security forces liberated Nineveh in 2017, only 70 families have returned to Mosul, where they are nearly all on the east bank of the Tigris, according to Father Amanuel Adel Klool, the only priest living in the city.
On the west bank, the fighting completely destroyed the historic Old City, where tight clusters of churches and mosques were once connected by winding alleys weaving between stone heritage buildings. The jihadist militants took refuge within the thick walls and deep crypts of the churches, which were heavily damaged by air strikes.
Soon after the bombs stopped falling, Mr Rassam returned to his old neighbourhood, while his family remained in exile in Baghdad. “I was one of the first back,” he said, telling of nights spent prowling for looters and sleeping in the streets and on ruined balconies.
He recalls a childhood surrounded by fellow Christian families who coexisted peacefully with their Muslim neighbours.
“At Christmas and Easter there wasn’t enough room in here for all the worshippers and people would have to sit outside. The women all wore their fine clothes and perfume,” he said, surrounded by the ruins of five churches.
A Unesco project is now working to restore several of these churches, alongside about 200 heritage houses (of about 12,000 that were destroyed in the Old City).
The United Nations heritage agency is also rebuilding the nearby Al-Nouri mosque, long famed for its leaning minaret but which gained infamy when Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi anointed himself caliph from its pulpit in 2014.
The Pope’s visit here will likely boost restoration efforts, said Paolo Fontani, the head of Unesco in Iraq. “The Pope has this message of human fraternity, and for us [at Unesco] Mosul is also about bringing back that spirit of multiculturalism and different communities living together,” Mr Fontani said, as he oversaw last-minute preparations for the Pontiff’s visit to Al-Tahira church.
Father Olivier Poquillon, a Dominican Order priest who is monitoring the restoration of the nearby Our Lady of the Hour Church, said the rebuilding aimed to bring together Mosul’s fractured communities.
“It is providing one of the few opportunities for Christians and Muslims to work together on a common project, like it was in the past,” he said. The Pope on Saturday hailed these efforts ahead of his arrival in Mosul.
"I think of the young Muslim volunteers of Mosul, who helped to repair churches and monasteries, building fraternal friendships on the rubble of hatred, and those Christians and Muslims who today are restoring mosques and churches together," he said during a speech in Ur.
Father Olivier said he hoped these efforts would be sufficient to convince Christians they had a future in the city. “We don’t know if the [Christian] families will come back but at least we know if we do nothing, nothing is going to happen,” he said.
But Mr Rassam, who cut a weathered figure in a flannel shirt with a pack of Malboros in the pocket, was pessimistic. “I don’t think Christians will come back,” he said. “I feel like a stranger in my own city, I feel lonely, that’s why I want to see the Pope.”
Such a high-profile visit will draw attention to the glacial pace of rebuilding in the city, where bodies are still pulled from the rubble nearly four years after fighting ended.
“The Pope’s visit may help the area, it will probably pressure the government to contribute to rebuilding,” said Mr Rassam. “Only God knows what will change after his visit but hopefully he will bring peace.”