On Saturday the 6th of March, Pope Francis held an historic meeting with Iraq’s Shia leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. This marked the first time a pope and a grand ayatollah had ever met. In this meeting, Francis thanked al-Sistani for his defence of Iraq’s weakest and most persecuted in Iraq’s recent history. Together, the two men called for peace and religious coexistence. Following this meeting, Francis visited the ruins of ancient Ur in southern Iraq and met with other faith leaders. Ur is long believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Pope Francis’ trip to Iraq is historic on many levels. Not only is it the first time a pope and a grand ayatollah have met, but it is also the first-ever papal visit to Iraq. This trip is also the Pope’s first international travel since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. However, Francis’ visit is not just about setting historic records. The Pope is using his time in Iraq to advocate for the nation’s minority groups, urging action on issues of governance, and encouraging interfaith dialogue. On his first day in Iraq, the Pope pointed to corruption and a disregard for law as major issues for Iraqi officials to confront. Francis also showed his respect for other Iraqi minorities who have been harmed by extremist violence in the nation, in particular the Yazidi people. Iraq’s Yazidi community was targeted by ISIS, alongside Christians, when the extremist group swept through northern Iraq in 2014. Francis plans to travel to Mosul, an ISIS stronghold, to honour the dead.
After Francis’ meeting with al-Sistani, the Grand Ayatollah’s office released a statement that reminded religious authorities of their role in protecting Iraq’s Christians, who “should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, with their full constitutional rights.” This message of interreligious peace was further advanced by Pope Francis during his visit to Ur. Meeting with other faith leaders, Pope Francis urged Iraq’s religious groups to unite for peace. Francis told leaders, “From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters.” Francis added, “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion.”
More than 1.5 million Christians once lived in Iraq, but the community has been ravaged by successive conflicts. Sectarian warfare in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 prompted many Iraqi Christians to flee the nation, and attacks by ISIS in 2014 further damaged all minority communities in the nation. Latest estimates put the number of Christians in Iraq at around 400,000. The Pope’s visit, and his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is a significant chapter in the nation’s history. As Al Jazeera’s Simona Foltyn said, Pope Francis is “very much here to inspire hope and foster peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims.” With the two men urging peaceful coexistence and interfaith dialogue, a path towards a bright future is being laid. It is greatly hoped that their efforts are not in vain.
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