On the second day of his visit to Iraq, this Saturday (6), Pope Francis flew before sunrise to the holy city of Najaf, where he entered a narrow alley to hold a historic meeting with the principal Shia Muslim cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.
The episode is symbolic not only because it is the first time that a leader of the Catholic Church has visited the predominantly Muslim nation, but because a pope and a Shia cleric have never met before.
The compromise is seen as an attempt to strengthen the dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam. During his visit, Francis sought to support Christians in the predominantly Shiite country, urged Iraqi leaders to protect all minority rights and sent a message that he himself is back on the world stage after one year without leaving the Vatican for the cause of the pandemic.
At the end of the conversation between the leaders, which lasted about 1 hour and was held behind closed doors, Al-Sistani declared his commitment to peace and security for Christians in the country, where they are to live. like all Iraqis, “in peace. and coexistence “.
Over 95% of Iraqis are Muslims, while only 1% identifies with different currents of Christianity.
Ayatollah, who at 90 is one of the most influential figures in Shia Islam inside and outside the country in the Middle East, called on religious leaders around the world to uphold the wisdom and common sense about war. The meeting took place in the house that Al-Sistani had rented for decades near Imam Ali’s mosque.
From Najaf, Francis traveled to the ruins of Ur, one of the oldest civilizations in the world and where the sacred texts say the Prophet Abraham was born – considered the patriarch of the three main monotheistic religions of the world: the Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
With the desert wind blowing in his white cassock, the Argentine sat next to Muslim (Shiite and Sunni), Christian and Yazidi (a small minority persecuted by the Islamic State terrorist group) rulers, but also people knowledgeable and Zoroastrian – ancient communities in the country.
The leader of Catholicism spoke at the sight of the 4,000-year-old archaeological excavation of the city. The interfaith event also reinforced an important theme of his trip to Iraq: the country has suffered greatly. “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 desecrate his name by hating our brothers and sisters,” said Francisco.
“Hostility, extremism and violence do not arise from a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion,” continued the religious leader. “We, the faithful, cannot remain silent when terrorism abuses religion.”
No Jewish representative was present at the meeting – in 1947, a year before the birth of Israel, the Iraqi Jewish community consisted of approximately 150,000 people. Now the numbers are much smaller.
A local church official said representatives of Judaism had been contacted and invited, but the situation for them was “complicated”, especially since they did not have a structured community.
According to data from Johns Hopkins University, Iraq is currently going through one of its worst times of the pandemic – and the main concern is the risk that the Pope’s visit will promote settlements and expose the Iraqi population, who do not has not yet had access to vaccines. .
Religious leaders, however, appear to be repeatedly exposed. An image from the event in Ur shows the pontiff standing in front of guests and next to other religious figures, and no one is using facial protection. The same goes for the meeting with the Ayatollah.
On January 4, the moving average of new infections was 834.4 per day. Two months later, the recorded number was 4,233.1 – equivalent to an increase of more than 407% in confirmed cases of the disease. As of this Saturday, the country had more than 719,000 cases and 13,537 deaths.
Sunday (7), Francisco goes to Arbil, capital of Kurdistan, a partially autonomous region of the Iraqi central government.
It is not clear whether the restrictions on the containment of the coronavirus will be properly observed, as the Catholic leader is due to hold a mass at a sports stadium that can accommodate thousands of people on his last night in the country.
Francisco also scheduled appointments in Qaraqosh and Mosul, the latter a former stronghold of the Islamic State, where churches and other buildings still bear the scars of conflicts between different armed groups which increased after the vacuum caused by the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, who died in 2006.
The end of the papal journey is scheduled for Monday morning (8), when Francis is due to return to Rome.