Pope Francis meets Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani

The head of the Catholic Church met Iraq’s most prominent Shia Muslim cleric on Saturday at an iconic interfaith meeting on the second day of his historic visit to Iraq.

During a 45-minute meeting at the simple home of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, which the Hermetic Cleric rarely leaves, Pope Francis thanked the 90-year-old “for speaking out – with the Shiite community – in defense of those who are vulnerable and persecuted ”.

Sistani’s office said it had emphasized the role of spiritual leadership in solving “the challenges of humanity,” including poverty, oppression and injustice.

Sistani is “the Shiite Islam closest to a pope,” according to Hayder al-Khoei, director of foreign relations at the al-Khoei Institute. “They are both champions of dialogue, they both stress the need for social cohesion, condemning violence in the name of religion,” said Khoei, who met the two men.

This weekend’s papal visit, the first to a Middle Eastern country devastated by sectarian violence since the American invasion in 2003, was an opportunity to celebrate Iraq’s rich religious diversity and highlight the importance of tolerance.

“In the heart of the Pope, I feel there is a kind of call to come to a region in flames,” Cardinal Louis Sako said, speaking as Iraqis improved churches, archaeological sites and even a stadium, all the places where François will deliver a rare message of hope.

But the trip, the first by a head of state to Iraq in years and the Pope’s first overseas trip during the pandemic, raised concerns for the safety and spread of the coronavirus in a country that has seen this week the number of cases hit an all-time high.

For three days, the pontiff will travel through Iraq, from the historic birthplace of Abraham, revered in monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in the south, to the northern plains of Nineveh, meeting representatives of many Iraqi religious sects and ethnic groups.

St Joseph’s Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad, Iraq, where the Pope will hold mass © Ameer Al Mohammedaw / dpa

The Pope will visit the ruined city of Mosul, where the leader of Isis declared his self-proclaimed caliphate and his fighters ruled with medieval brutality. He will also conduct mass at a Baghdad cathedral near a church where terrorists shot dead worshipers in 2010, and at a stadium in the Kurdistan region capital Erbil, which has become a haven for Christians. fleeing the Isis blitzkrieg in various communities in northern Iraq in 2014.

If there is no open conflict, Iraq remains tense. This week alone, 10 rockets exploded at an Iraqi air base housing US troops. The attack has not been claimed, but follows serious attacks by Iranian-backed Iraqi militants on facilities housing US personnel.

An Iraqi man examines the remains of members of the Yazidi religious minority killed by Isis in a mass grave near the village of Sinuni, Sinjar, Iraq

Iraq was torn apart by Islamist extremists after the 2003 invasion, who specifically targeted the Yazidi religious minority © Safin Hamed / AFP via Getty Images

A Vatican official said the security of the Pope is the responsibility of the host country, although it is possible, the official added, that more papal security guards are traveling than usual. Iraq has provided few details, but reports suggest that up to 10,000 troops will be mobilized. The trip will be by helicopter and closed car, which the Vatican says would likely be more heavily armored than the regular Pope-mobile.

Although the Pope has received two doses of the BioNTech / Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine, and his entourage will have been vaccinated, health experts fear the impact of large crowds on efforts to contain the pandemic. Virologist Dr Navid Madani told the AP that the reception of Pope Francis “could potentially lead to dangerous or widespread risks”. The number of coronavirus cases in Iraq hit a record 5,173 two days before the trip.

For the Vatican, this trip strengthens the Pope’s efforts to strengthen relations with the Muslim world, extending his message of encouragement of “fraternity and social friendship” described in his 2020 encyclical “Brothers all”.

People of all faiths suffered devastating sectarian violence following the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Then the country was torn apart by Islamist extremists Isis, who specifically targeted the Yazidi religious minority in what the UN called genocide. Christians also suffered from the outburst of Isis in their northern countries.

“After the liberation of our regions [from Isis], the government did not participate in the reconstruction to gain the trust of the people, ”said Father Majeed Hazem Atallah, secretary of the Syriac Catholic Archdiocese of Mosul and its affiliates. “The church has rebuilt the houses.”

Musicians and singers from a common Kurdish and Christian orchestra and choir rehearse at Erbil Stadium, Iraqi Kurdistan region, ahead of Pope Francis' visit on March 1, 2021

Kurdish and Christian musicians and singers rehearse Monday at the Erbil stadium before the pontiff’s visit. The stadium in the capital of the Kurdistan region has become a haven of peace for Christians fleeing the brutality of Isis in 2014 © Gailan Haji / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

Christians today number 500,000 in Iraq, a third of what they once were, and a fraction of the population of 40 million. Some see the visit as an encouragement to Iraqi Christian denominations not to abandon their homeland.

The visit also demonstrates that Iraq is “part of the moderate international community fighting against extremism and intolerance,” said Abbas Kadhim, director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council. Iraq “is trying to emancipate itself from this hideous struggle between the United States and Iran,” said Maria Fantappie, Italian special advisor for the MENA region at the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue. The Vatican outreach comes at a time when Iraq “desperately needs multilateralism,” she added.

For many Iraqis, the sudden rush of road repairs along the Pope’s Highway contrasts sharply with the general neglect. Not everyone is optimistic that a papal visit can heal the divisions either. But Cardinal Sako said he hoped the Pope’s message of tolerance could be translated into “the reality of kindness.”

“Otherwise we will remain miserable and tear ourselves apart and destroy this country which is a cradle of Akkadian and Sumerian and Islamic and Christian civilizations, and then what will be the result?” Sako said. “Nothing.”

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