Pope Francis 3-day historic visit to Iraq symbolic; meets Iraq’s Shia leader al-Sistani

Pope Francis touched Iraqi soil Friday on a three-day visit, from March 5-8, with itinerary planned to Baghdad, the northern city of Mosul and Ur.

Pope Francis has met with the 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most senior leaders in Shia Islam, in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf to deliver a message of peaceful coexistence, urging Muslims to embrace Iraq’s long-beleaguered Christian minority.

The historic meeting on Saturday which had publicity hype and aired live on Iraqi television was months in the making, with every detail painstakingly discussed and negotiated between the ayatollah’s office and the Vatican.

After the meeting, al-Sistani office released a statement that said religious authorities have a role in protecting Iraq’s Christians and that the Shia leader “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights”.

The Vatican said Francis thanked al-Sistani and the Shia people for having “raised his voice in defence of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history.

He said al-Sistani’s message of peace affirmed “the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people”.

For Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority, a show of solidarity from al-Sistani could help secure their place in Iraq after years of displacement – and, they hope, ease intimidation from Shia armed groups against their community.

Reminiscing his arrival Friday, Iraq’s PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi received him at the airport, with a red carpet, Iraqis in national dress and songs from a largely unmasked choir greeted him. Hundreds of people lined the airport road as the Pope’s convoy, heavily chaperoned by police motorcycles, left for the city.

But the Pope was seen to have a pronounced limp, suggesting that his sciatica condition continues to bother him.

In a speech after being welcomed by Iraqi President Barham Salih, Pope Francis said he was very pleased to come to Iraq, which he described as the “cradle of civilisation”.

The pontiff is making his first international trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Covid and security fears have made this his riskiest visit yet, but the 84-year-old insisted he was “duty bound”

.About 10,000 Iraqi Security Forces personnel are being deployed to protect the Pope, while round-the-clock curfews are also being imposed to limit the spread of Covid

.Pope Francis has called for an end to violence and extremism. He is hoping to foster inter-religious dialogue. The closed-door meeting touched on issues plaguing Iraq’s Christian minority. Al-Sistani is a deeply revered figure in Shia-majority Iraq and his opinions on religious and other matters are sought by Shia Muslims worldwide.

“May the clash of arms be silenced… may there be an end to acts of violence and extremism, factions and intolerance!” he said.

“Iraq has suffered the disastrous effects of wars, the scourge of terrorism and sectarian conflicts often grounded in a fundamentalism incapable of accepting the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups.”

He also said Iraq’s dwindling Christian communities affected by conflict should have a more prominent role as citizens with full rights, freedoms and responsibilities.

He said, “The age-old presence of Christians in this land, and their contributions to the life of the nation, constitute a rich heritage that they wish to continue to place at the service of all.”

Iraq’s diversity according to him, was a “precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to eliminate”.

Pope Francis later held Mass in Baghdad’s Syriac Catholic church of Our Lady of Salvation, targeted in an attack in 2010 by jihadists which left 52 Christians and police dead

The Pontiff is scheduled to visit the southern ancient Iraqi city of Ur on Saturday, after meetings with politicians, religious figures, and archaeological sites in the cities of Najaf, Erbil, Mosul and the capital Baghdad. The pontiff is expected to host an inter-religious meeting in Ur on Saturday.

Ur – also called Tal al-Muqayer is said to be the cradle of civilization and where the father of all three Abrahamic faiths is believed to have been born. It is located in Dhi Qar province, 300km (200 miles) south of the capital Baghdad.

“Ur is the birthplace of the Prophet of Ibrahim and this is mentioned in the Torah and the Gospels, and for this reason, all religions consider him their spiritual father.

“Therefore, visiting the land of his birth is considered one of the most important religious rites of the Christian pilgrimage,” he said

More than 6,000 years ago, Ur emerged as one of the world’s first main urban centres and centuries later developed into the hub of the then global economy with its factories mass-producing carpets and wool clothing for export within Mesopotamia and abroad.

In July 2016, UNESCO placed Ur on the World Heritage list, in addition to the marshes of southern Iraq, and other sites such as Eridu and Al-Warka.

Pope Francis’ historic visit aims to boost the morale of Iraq’s besieged Christian minority, which has dwindled in recent years amid wars and persecution, and to encourage religious coexistence between Muslims, Christians and other minorities.

“The politicians need to promote the spirit of fraternal solidarity,” the pontiff said on Friday.

“There is corruption, abuse of power, that is not the way. At the same time, you need to think of justice, transparency, to strengthen certain values, that is how credibility can grow so everyone, especially the young people, can have hope for the future.”

One of the world’s oldest Christian communities has seen its numbers plummet over the last two decades from 1.4 million to about 250,000, less than 1% of the population. Many have fled abroad to escape the violence that has plagued the country since the US-led invasion in 2003 that ousted Saddam.

Tens of thousands were also displaced when Islamic State (IS) militants overran northern Iraq in 2014, destroying their historic churches, seizing their property, and giving them the choice to pay a tax, convert, leave or face death.

The visit of the Pontif to Iraq is exciting and wield great hope particularly among the Christian community.

“I feel an indescribable happiness. We’re all brothers and sisters, we’re all one hand. We’re all going to greet someone great, the greatest figure, the Pope,” Naem Faouzi told Reuters news agency.+

Father Martin Ra’ad, a Christian priest said: “Today, Pope Francis is realising the dream that Iraqis have had for the past 20 years, waiting for him to arrive on Iraqi soil.”

Christians in the north were also looking forward to his visit. Alla Hana Shaba, who fled to Irbil in Iraq’s Kurdistan region after the IS invaded in 2014, told Iraqi TV: “We want the Pope to help the displaced find a place to settle. We have lost our houses and money.”

On Sunday in Mosul the Pope will say a prayer of suffrage in Church Square for the victims of the war with IS, which left tens of thousands of civilian’s dead.

The Pope will also visit nearby Qaraqosh, where Christians have returned since the defeat of IS in 2017.

According to the US state department, Christian leaders estimate there are fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining in Iraq, with the largest population – at least 200,000 – living in the Nineveh Plain and Kurdistan Region in the north of the country

Approximately 67% of those are Chaldean Catholics, whose Eastern-rite Church retains its own liturgy and traditions but recognises the authority of the pope in Rome. Another 20% are members of the Assyrian Church of the East, believed to be the oldest in Iraq

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