Religion Pope Francis urges Iraqis to reject extremism and sectarian violence

Pope Francis urges Iraqis to reject extremism and sectarian violence

Pope Francis celebrates peace and love for all mankind with his Iraqi flock. Photo: AP/Andrew Medichini
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Pope Francis has condemned violence in the name of religion and shared a message of religious coexistence in a historic visit to Iraq.

Francis also held a meeting with Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric in the holy city of Najaf on Saturday.

The inter-religious events reinforced the main theme of the pope’s risky trip to Iraq – that the country has suffered far too much, and the killing has often been sectarian.

“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 said at the ancient site of Ur, the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham.

With the desert wind blowing his white cassock, Francis spoke with Muslim, Christian and Yazidi leaders spoke at Ur within sight of the archaeological dig of the 4000 year-old city.

“Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion,” the pope said.

“We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion. Indeed, we are called unambiguously to dispel all misunderstandings.”

Hours earlier in Najaf, Francis met Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a visit that sent a strong signal for inter-religious dialogue and coexistence.

Sistani, 90, is one of the most influential figures in Shi’ite Islam, both within Iraq and beyond, and their meeting was the first between a pope and such a senior Shi’ite cleric.

The meeting took place at the humble home Sistani has rented for decades, near the golden-domed Imam Ali shrine in Najaf.

The pope’s visit to Iraq has been intensely blanketed in security and the roads his convoy travelled along on Saturday were closed to other traffic.

Trucks mounted with machine guns and even tanks were stationed in some places.

After the meeting, Sistani called on world religious leaders to hold great powers to account and for wisdom and sense to prevail over war. He added Christians should live like all Iraqis in peace and coexistence.

The US invasion of 2003 plunged Iraq into years of sectarian conflict. Security has improved since the defeat of Islamic State in 2017, but Iraq continues to be a theatre for global and regional score-settling, especially a bitter US-Iran rivalry.

Although Abraham is considered the father of Christians, Muslims and Jews, no Jewish representative was present at the inter-religious event in Ur.

In 1947, a year before Israel’s birth, Iraq’s Jewish community numbered around 150,000. Now their numbers are in single figures.

A local Church official said Jews were contacted and invited but the situation for them was “complicated” particularly as they have no structured community.

However, in similar past events in predominantly Muslim countries, a senior foreign Jewish figure has attended.

Islamic State militants, who tried to establish a caliphate covering several countries, ravaged northern Iraq from 2014-2017, killing Christians as well as Muslims who opposed the insurgents.

Iraq’s Christian community, one of the oldest in the world, has been particularly devastated, falling to about 300,000 from about 1.5 million before the US invasion and the brutal Islamist militant violence that followed.

At Ur, Francis praised young Muslims for helping Christians repair their churches “when terrorism invaded the north of this beloved country”.

Rafah Husein Baher, a member of the small, ancient Sabean Mandaean religion, thanked the pope for making the trip despite the many problems in the country.

“Your visit means a triumph of virtue, it is a symbol of appreciation to Iraqis.”

The pope travels on Sunday north to Mosul, a former Islamic State stronghold, where churches and other buildings still bear the scars of conflict.